Israelis Save Lives at U.S. Embassy In Kenya

By Leslie Schneider and Guy Brenner

Early in the morning on Friday, August 7, the U.S. awoke to the news of two virtually simultaneous bombings at the U.S. embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. The attacks, killing 257 (including 12 Americans) and wounding over 5,000, appear to have been the work of a sophisticated terrorist operation.

As the world began to learn of the incidents, Israel—a seasoned survivor of multiple terrorist bombings—offered the U.S. its expertise in disaster rescue and cleanup. Washington quickly accepted, and within six hours of the bombings, a rescue mission was authorized. Early on August 8, Israel dispatched to Kenya approximately 170 members of the IDF’s Home Front Command Rescue Unit, an elite reserve squadron trained in the handling of large-scale disasters. The unit was accompanied by a group of civilian and military doctors, eight working dogs sporting Star of David collars, and truckloads of high-tech rescue equipment (including drills, saws, compressors, communications devices, and a special inflatable rubber mat that can sustain up to 40 pounds of concrete).

The reservists were asked to drop everything at a moment’s notice to help in the rescue effort-a practice originating from Israel’s traditional reliance on citizen soldiers to meet military challenges. “I’d heard about the explosion on I kept my mobile phone open....I had two hours to get ready, but luckily I live close to the base,” said First Sergeant Ilan Cryton.

According to the New York Times (Aug. 9), Israel’s presence was felt immediately: “Before the arrival of the Israeli experts at 4 P.M., the rescue efforts had been going slowly and did not seem well-organized. By late afternoon, the ad-hoc team of volunteers, private contractors, engineers, Red Cross workers, and Kenyan soldiers were still trying to find a way to lift several large slabs of concrete without causing a general collapse that would doom the few people still left alive behind....But within an hour, the Israeli team had taken command...using three cranes to lift huge slabs of flooring off from above and clearing rubble with human chains.” CNN echoed these sentiments August 8, describing the initial rescue effort as an “energetic [but] ill-equipped” mission that was “changed and galvanized by the arrival of an Israeli squad of well-trained, very well-equipped, and highly experienced engineers who have done a lot of this.”

Less than seven hours after arriving at the scene, IDF rescuer Gil Weiner extricated a survivor from the rubble—a 45-year-old businessman named Gatili Nganga. On August 9, the Israeli-led team found 40-year-old Grace Odingo and her 10-year-old son Gabriel, shaken but largely unhurt, on the 21st floor of a building severely damaged by the blast.

Unfortunately, August 9 marked the last time that the search parties were able to pull survivors out alive. On August 12—after three heart-wrenching, precarious days of drilling, digging, debris-clearing, and sawing—the Israeli team announced that the mission was completed. Tragically, the team members’ heroic and feverish efforts to save victim Rose Wanjika—a woman who was detected alive beneath the rubble and was initially able to communicate with rescuers—fell short; she ultimately could not hang on long enough to be saved.

“Every stone was removed by hand. We entered into every little space we found, hoping she would be there. And coming...and finding that she was dead was a great disappointment. She was so young and so innocent. That was very sad. And we were so close to sav[ing] her,” said Dr. Nahum Nesher, a heart surgeon and unit reservist.

Nonetheless, the Israeli-spearheaded team, in a valiant four-day cooperative effort, was able to recover 95 bodies and save three people trapped alive in the ruins. And, despite the mission’ s underlying sadness, heartbreak, and sense of loss, the Israelis were able to generate small rays of hope-putting the entire effort in a brighter perspective. Shalom Ben-Ariye, one of the unit’s senior officers, summed it up this way: “In Israel, if we save one life, it’s like we have saved the whole world.”

On August 12, the Kenyan army raised four flagpoles at the blast site, honoring the four parties that ultimately comprised the rescue team’s international coalition-leaders Israel and Kenya, as well as their American and French helpers. In turn, the team members held a memorial service, laying wreaths and flowers and lowering their national flags in honor of the bombing’s many victims. That same day, in the same spirit as that of the time-honored Israeli burial tradition, three trees were planted-one for the Kenyans, one for the Americans, and one for peace, in the corner of a national “freedom park.”

Angels From The Sky

Praise for the Israeli soldiers was widespread-from the people on the ground to players on the world stage. Gatili Nganga, recovering after surgery that successfully reattached a severed limb, credited the IDF team with his safe recovery, saying: “If it wasn’t for the Israeli soldiers, I’m sure that today I would be dead.” A Kenyan Red Cross worker told the Israelis: “You came like angels from the sky.” An unidentified onlooker interviewed by CNN said “the Israelis were very perfect.” Upon the unit’s imminent departure, Kenya’s President, Daniel Arap-Moi, took time to meet with the team members to convey his personal thanks, as well as his country’s deeply-held feelings of appreciation.

Israel’s prompt response and courageous efforts were met with deep U.S. gratitude. President Clinton said Israel’s immediate and sincere response to the crisis was both “ impressive and heartwarming.” State Department Spokesman James Foley reported that “Secretary of State Madeleine Albright initiated [a] call to Prime Minister Netanyahu...over the thank the government and the people of Israel for their extraordinary assistance in the search-and-rescue effort in Nairobi.” According to Foley, the secretary noted the Israelis’ “phenomenal role in leading the search-and-rescue efforts,” maintaining that “the experience and expertise of the Israeli teams literally made the difference between life and death for at least one victim of the blast.”

(It appears that Israel was also indirectly responsible for the saving of lives in Tanzania, where there were far fewer casualties than in Kenya. Reports indicate that the building occupied by the U.S. Embassy in Dar-es-Salaam was originally built to house the Israeli installation—thus meeting Israel’s stringent building regulations, formulated to protect its embassies from such an attack).

Israel has now extended its offer of assistance, volunteering to aid in the investigation by helping track down the bombings’ perpetrators. Senior Kenyan military sources were quoted as saying that the U.S. has accepted Prime Minister Netanyahu’s offer of the services of Israeli intelligence agencies. Netanyahu stated that Israel is “prepared to help not only in rescue operations, but also in international efforts—in the intelligence field and others—to fight this terrorism, which we have faced for many years.”

By assisting in the Nairobi rescue effort and investigation, Israel has finally been able to repay Kenya for its invaluable help during the famous Entebbe raid on July 4, 1976 (Kenya discreetly aided Israel with the Entebbe operation by allowing the IDF to use Kenyan facilities for intelligence gathering and refueling).

Israel’s impressive display of compassion and crisis-management is another proud chapter in the history of the state. Israel proved once again that it is a loyal friend to the U.S. and a devoted member of the community of nations.

Source: Near East Report, (August 24, 1998).