November 23, 2003, Updated September 19, 2012

The emblem of Magen David Adom joined those of the other international rescue organizations at a recent conference in Israel.Red Cross officials from around the world gathered in Israel last week for a three-day disaster management workshop hosted by Magen David Adom, which marked an unofficial welcoming of the Israeli rescue service into the brotherhood of the International Red Cross.

The workshop was organized in cooperation with the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC), the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (Federation), and the American Red Cross (ARC).

Despite being officially left out in the cold by the International Red Cross Movement – which has not allowed MDA’s Star of David emblem to join the Cross and Red Crescent – when it comes to activity on the ground, MDA has been incredibly influential in the organization.

According to Douglas Allen, Director of the American Red Cross International Disaster Response Unit, the fact that the conference was held in Israel is proof that the MDA has “joined the ranks” of the international rescue service community.

“The American Red Cross has a Memorandum of Understanding signed with MDA, and we’ve done a lot of advocacy work and some other things to help solidify MDA’s place in the International Red Cross and Red Crescent movement.

“But this workshop is one of the first concrete actions that we’ve taken to introduce MDA to other services and concepts on how the International Red Cross movement works, what our logic is, why we do what we do, where do we work, with whom, and who our beneficiaries are,” Allen said.

Lauding MDA’s “excellent reputation as being an extremely brave, extremely professional and extremely competent ambulance service, including several levels of EMT, basic life support, advanced life support and critical life support,” Allen added, “I’ve learned a lot about the professionalism, tremendous courage and highly sophisticated system of MDA, which is interesting to me, since my own Red Cross society in the United States does not offer this kind of service.”

He alluded to a more comprehensive role for MDA, saying that “There are certain countries like the United States where the American Red Cross does not provide ambulance services – but we do provide many services to the American public that we want to basically expose MDA to.

“So we’re providing MDA with a menu of cross-cultural service-delivery platforms from ourselves, the British Red Cross, Norwegian Red Cross, German Red Cross, ICRC and the federation, to explain to them that the Red Cross is significantly more than an ambulance service or an EMT service,” Allen said.

Allen mentioned some of the intensive workshop activities, including “team-building exercises designed to get people to read and assimilate certain information and then present it back to us in the forms and templates we want, with an eye towards, ‘now you understand how the process works, the transfer of information.’ “

The ICRC’s Cooperation Coordinator in Jerusalem, Sandrine Tiller hailed the pioneering workshop as one more example of joint activities between the two organizations, pointing out a cooperation agreement hammered out in June 2003, and a ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ announced in November 2002.

“Magen David Adom is part of the Red Cross – Red Crescent family, although formally it is not accepted in the movement,” Tiller said of the reality on the ground, despite the official snubbing. She added, “We are working with the MDA as if it were any other national society.”

Envisioning the role of MDA on a larger world scope, Tiller says, “One of the key roles of any national society in the world is to respond to disasters, and this is a responsibility that MDA, although they are in charge of pre-hospital care. [MDA] will be always the contact point for the Israeli response to disasters that the Red Cross responds to, and if there were a natural disaster in Israel, the Red Cross movement would come to help and that help would come through the MDA.”

Terming the conference a “kick-off workshop,” Tiller says, “It’s the beginning of working with MDA; how MDA can become involved in disaster management.”

When asked what MDA can bring to the table in assisting other, far larger organizations like the ICRC and ARC, Tiller notes: “In the past MDA has always come to foreign disasters under the umbrella of the Home Front [Command].

“But as it becomes closer to the Red Cross – Red Crescent Movement, their participation in any response to natural disasters through the federation will be crucial. Israel is well known around the world and MDA in particular for its high standards. MDA has an excellent team of people working in pre-hospital care. They’re also good in volunteer management and first-aid training and can provide a range of services,” Tiller explained.

“I’ve been very impressed by the open attitude of the MDA, their willingness to engage in what is essentially sort of a new area,” Tiller points out, “And we’re really looking forward to developing new programs with the MDA, looking at how MDA can participate in international disaster response, but also how it can prepare itself for any potential disaster here. We are very committed to supporting the MDA in its endeavors.”

Tiller, however, was a good deal less committed when asked about the prospects of MDA being allowed to officially join the organization. MDA was denied membership in the Red Cross in 1949, purportedly because its red six-pointed star emblem was unacceptable under the organization’s
guidelines, which accepted only the cross. Since 1949, 25 Red Crescent societies have been admitted, and MDA remains the only national emergency relief society to be excluded from the movement. Arab and other Third World
countries have long opposed MDA’s admission for political reasons, using the lack of a recognized symbol as their excuse.

“Basically, the international movement has proposed an amendment to the Geneva Conventions [which would recognize Magen David Adom’s symbol and admit it as a full-fledged member] This has to be ratified by a diplomatic conference of states that are party to the Geneva Conventions.

“Sadly, [the] global political situation affects our Red Cross – Red Crescent Movement, and the conference of states have not been able to come
to agreement on this issue, and that’s because of the current tension and because this is a very well-known conflict,” Tiller admitted.

Haim Rafalowski, MDA’s Emergency Department Director put it this way: “Although the Magen David Adom is not recognized due to the emblem issue, they [the ICRC] will start working with MDA as they work with any other national society in the movement, understand that the emblem issue is a political one, that might – we hope very much, and as much as we understand they do to – be resolved soon.

“But we cannot wait until it’s solved in order to work. During this training we realized that although MDA has vast experience dealing with multi-casualty incidents, our scope is the 100 -200 casualties – that we haven’t had yet, but that we believe we can handle in a very short period of time.

“But if – God forbid – there is a mass disaster, meaning having thousands of casualties for a prolonged period of time,” Rafalowski says, “we actually don’t have the knowledge of what it means to handle such a disaster.”

“So we decided that our first step would be to learn. The objective of this workshop is to let our people hear and learn from the experts in the Red Cross movement. Both from the headquarters, and more importantly, from the field – from those who actually treated or responded.”

Another positive development at the workshop was the participation of representatives from the Palestinian Red Crescent Society. According to Rafalowski, there is ongoing cooperation between the two organizations.

“Cooperation is going on – is going on well, with all the problems: to cross [army] checkpoints, and Israeli ambulances that cannot go into the Palestinian cities.

“We live in the same territory, and we provide mutual aid – our mission is to provide help regardless of race, religion or any other factor. Many times we find that the patients are Palestinians, or the PRCS might respond to an emergency call and be there first, attending to a Jew or Israeli, the same way as we might care for a Palestinian,” Rafalowski says, describing a dramatic mutual effort that saved a Palestinian child’s life:

“Two years ago, I was a dispatcher at the Yarkon region [northeast of Tel Aviv, abutting West Bank Palestinian areas], and we received a PRCS call from Nablus for assistance for a Palestinian child that had fallen into well in the village of Bidiya.”

Relatives said they were ferrying the child to Beilinson Hospital in nearby Petah Tikva.

“We sent out an Advanced Life Support unit to Bidiya, and alerted the IDF checkpoint en route at Oranit, on the Cross-Samaria highway that a PRCS ambulance was soon due their way.

“We then received a call from the front gate of the Israeli community of Elkana, also en route, that a Palestinian private vehicle arrived containing a child who was not breathing, most likely after drowning.”

While waiting for the ambulances to arrive, Rafalowski immediately contacted an MDA ‘first-responder,’ who happened to live in the settlement of Elkana, instructing him to administer CPR to the child, who was suffering from a lack of oxygen to the brain and fading fast.

The child’s life was saved thanks to fast, smooth cooperation between the Israeli and Palestinian rescues services.

“I hope the political situation will enable us to sit down with my counterpart [PRCS’s Hassan Basharat] – which I’m very glad is participating in this workshop. On October 2000, we were scheduled to visit their headquarters in Ramallah – but, you know…” Rafalowski adds, alluding to the outbreak of hostilities between Israelis and Palestinians that autumn that effectively nixed high-level collaboration.

“I still have the invitation, and Hassan just told me the invitation is still there,” Rafalowski says, but adds, “[At] this moment, it’s just not feasible to talk about cooperation at the managerial level. We know that we must do it and we are waiting for the opportunity.

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

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