The positive outgrowth of Lebanon: Israeli unit stems from 1982 tragedy

On the morning of Nov. 11, 1982, a giant blast rocked the southern Lebanese town of Tyre. The blast decimated a seven-story building that had served as the Israel Defense Force command there, turning it into a 25-foot pile of ruins that buried some 127 Israeli security personnel and 33 Arab detainees.

After intensive rescue efforts, the final death toll reached 89. Of those, 76 were Israelis.

"We came there as individuals, civil defense soldiers who happened to be in the vicinity," reserve Col. Gavriel Rappaport recalled this week.

Although no efforts were spared to find survivors, rescue work at the time lacked planning and organization. As a result, Rappaport was ordered by then-Chief of Staff Rafael Eitan to set up a new body, the IDF's Rescue Unit.

"I interviewed 1,500 soldiers, and eventually selected 300 who became the skeleton of the new unit," Rappaport told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. They included regular soldiers as well as reserve soldiers with engineering and technical backgrounds.

"The first criterion was motivation," then professional capabilities, said Rappaport.

A year after the Tyre tragedy, the rescue unit's new-found skills were called into use. A booby-trapped car had exploded in the yard of the same Israeli military headquarters, killing 29, wounding 31.

That time, however, Israel had a rescue machine to cope with the disaster.

The rescue unit soon became one of the army's more popular reserve units. Senior engineers and technicians try to pull strings to do their annual reserve service in the rescue unit.

The unit accumulated most of its professional experience during the 1991 Gulf War, when Iraqi Scud missiles hit Israeli population centers. Only one person died as a direct result of those attacks, but the rescue unit was there, with its yellow helmets and sniffing dogs, ready to save people from the ruins.

Word of the Israelis' special expertise has spread, and the unit has been called into action around the world.

The Israelis were involved in the rescue of wounded in earthquakes in Mexico in September 1985, and in Armenia in December 1988. They assisted in the rescue operation after the bombing of the Israeli Embassy in Buenos Aires in 1992.

"I was there in Buenos Aires," recalled reserve Maj. Shaul Nevo, who served in the unit during the Gulf War. "We knew that there was little chance to find survivors; our main job was to detect bodies."

As the Israeli newspaper Ma'ariv said in an editorial Monday, "In operations like this in remote countries, the legend of the IDF is still in effect."

Rescue work in Nairobi continued through Wednesday, when the search for survivors was called off. The Israelis, working side by side with the French, were busy clearing the rubble that remained from the bombed office building that used to stand opposite the American Embassy building in Nairobi. The blast left more than 200 dead and about 5,000 injured.

As of Wednesday, the Israeli team had rescued a 45-year-old businessman, Francis Nganga, and a woman from the office building, as well as Grace Ordindo and her 13-year-old son, Gabriel, on the 22nd story of a bank some 50 hours after the terror blast.

The Israelis had also located some 50 bodies.

One disappointment in the search came Wednesday when rescuers finally reached a Kenyan woman whose tapping had motivated their work — only to find her dead.

According to an Associated Press report, Rose Wanjiku had talked through debris to Kenyan Red Cross workers on Sunday, and the Israelis still heard tapping from her Monday. But when they at last located her beneath the wrecked steel and concrete in a building adjacent to the embassy, it was too late.

Still, the Israeli team was heaped with praise in Kenya. "You came like angels from the sky," one member of the Kenyan Red Cross told the team.

"We are not better than others," Rappaport said. "It's just that when we are there, we do not waste any time, we simply go straight to work."

Rappaport did not travel to Nairobi — at the age of 70, he is now retired. Like other Israelis, the member of Kibbutz Beit Alfa has been watching the rescuers on television.

"In a way, I was there. I was so proud of them," he said.