The United Nation’s World Health Organization recognized the Israeli army’s field hospital, which is regularly sent abroad to provide aid at natural disaster sites, as “the number one in the world” in a ceremony last week, classifying it as its first and only “Type 3” field hospital, according to its commander, Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Ofer Merin.
As reported last month, the WHO and the Israel Defense Forces had been in talks to determine if the army unit met the demands of a “Type 3” medical team, a status no medical team had ever reached before.
Last Wednesday, the IDF’s field hospital team received the “Type 3” designation, along with some additional “specialized care” recognitions, which technically made it a “Type 3 plus,” though the army kept the information quiet until Sunday.
“We’re going to recommend the director-general verifies [Israel’s team] as a Type 1, Type 2, and also Type 3 and multiple different types of specialty cells,” Dr. Ian Norton, the lead author of the classification system and head of the WHO delegation, said Wednesday at the ceremony in the Medical Corps’ base in Ramat Gan, outside Tel Aviv.
“We haven’t had that ever before,” Norton said, praising the months of work put in by the Israeli team to receive the designation.
Israel will receive official WHO patches noting the new designation, and members of the IDF’s Medical Corps, including Merin, will meet with the head of the international organization at a formal ceremony in Hong Kong at the end of the month, the army said.
The United Nations is generally seen as having a negative attitude toward Israel, giving this recognition of the IDF’s abilities some additional weight, Merin said.
The representatives from the World Health Organization were “not biased, not one bit,” he said.
In 2013, the United Nation’s WHO created a set of criteria to classify foreign medical teams in sudden onset disasters, on a scale from one to three. Israel is now the only country to receive the top mark. “Only a handful in the world could even think of” doing so in the future, Norton said in a conversation with The Times of Israel last month.
In a phone conversation with reporters on Sunday, Merin, who has personally invested “hundreds of hours” in the recognition process, described the experience of having the work he and his team have done be classified as the best in the world as “emotional.”
“I wish I could sit here and say it’s a ‘Mazal tov’ for me, but it’s a ‘Mazal tov’ for the army, for Israel,” Merin said, using a Hebrew term that literally means “good luck,” but is used as “congratulations.”
The recognition process took nearly a year, beginning in January 2016, most of that meticulously reviewing manuals and ensuring that Israel met the criteria, Merin said.
In the past two months, WHO delegations also visited Israel and met with Merin and his team in order to assess the IDF Medical Corps’ field hospital, a sprawling structure that can comprise up to 30 tents, according to the IDF. However, the version seen by Norton’s team during an exercise in northern Israel in September contained just 26.
The military’s field hospital is “not just some medics and doctors spread out in the field”; rather it is a “national treasure” that has the capabilities of an advanced, permanent hospital but can be set up almost anywhere in under 12 hours, Merin told The Times of Israel last month.
Israeli disaster relief delegations — some of them led by Merin — have been some of the first and largest to arrive at the scenes of natural disasters. Teams from the IDF Medical Corps and Home Front Command provided rescue and medical services after an earthquake in Turkey in 1999, an earthquake in Haiti in 2010, a typhoon in the Philippines in 2013 and, most recently, an earthquake in Nepal in 2015.
This Type 3 classification ensures that Israeli teams will continue to be the first allowed on the scene of future disasters and further cements Israel’s position as a world leader in emergency medicine, proving to friends and foes alike that the Jewish state knows how to handle catastrophes.
“This recognition isn’t just international. It’s also recognition for ourselves, showing us what we can do,” the army spokesperson said Sunday.
While Israel’s emergency medical teams may be best known for their work abroad, Merin stressed that this takes a backseat to its primary directive.
“Our role is, first of all, to deploy and assist in either — God forbid — a natural disaster, which can happen because Israel’s on an active [fault line] or in cases of war,” he said.
Israel’s regular humanitarian relief efforts have drawn both international praise and accusations of “rubble-washing” — or using its disaster relief effort to boost its international standing.
Helping other countries in need is “the most effective kind of diplomacy,” then-foreign minister Avigdor Liberman said in 2015, after Israel sent a team to Nepal. “In crafting a country’s image, nothing is more effective than providing aid.”
However, diplomats insist the drive is mostly altruistic.
“If we’re sending aid to Haiti, the Philippines and Nepal, we’re obviously not looking to reap great diplomatic benefits from these countries, which I might be allowed to describe as not superpowers,” said a former senior diplomat in 2015, responding to a question about Liberman’s comment.