San Antonio, Texas - Nothing would telegraph the message that "America is back" in the Middle East with a balanced, smart-power policy better than for US President Barack Obama to immediately send a US Naval hospital ship to Gaza.
The deployment of a hospital ship should be the centrepiece of a highly visible American-led, sea-based disaster response and humanitarian relief effort. This action will help restore America's global image as a nation that cares about the downtrodden, who are, in this case, predominantly Muslims and Arabs.
The time is right for the dramatic deployment of a humanitarian relief task force to respond to the desperate needs of the people locked in the Gaza Strip. Over 1,300 Palestinians have been killed– and over 5,000 wounded – by military violence. Most of the casualties are civilians who were caught in brutal combat operations in densely populated urban areas. "I have seen only a fraction of the destruction. This is shocking and alarming", said UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon after his visit to Gaza on 21 January.
Thousands of survivors of the violence need definitive medical care to survive their wounds and recover this winter. Yet, the Israeli and Egyptian governments continue to refuse the transportation of the injured into their respective countries for medical care.
The visible and explicit support of this war by the Bush administration was not in the great humanitarian tradition of the United States. Something must be done to counter Bush's legacy. The US military possesses great capabilities to support humanitarian relief efforts in the area, and can make a real difference in relieving human suffering.
There are two US Navy hospital ships, each with a self-contained definitive treatment facility with 12 fully-equipped operating rooms, a 1,000-bed hospital facility, radiological services, a medical laboratory, a pharmacy, an optometry lab, a CAT scan and two oxygen-producing plants. Helicopters can deliver patients to the ship while it is at sea. As non-combatant vessels they are protected by The Hague and Geneva Conventions, and therefore free from any military interference.
The movement of medical supplies and of the US military hospital, pre-positioned in Israel, to Gaza or Egypt to support casualty triage and the efforts of local medical personnel should start immediately. The helicopters from a US aircraft carrier can provide medical evacuation from the triage area in Gaza to the hospital ship and/or to airfields in Israel or Egypt for subsequent medical evacuation to Europe or the United States.
The 18-month Israeli embargo of Gaza has resulted in the degradation of the electrical power infrastructure and failure of the sewage treatment system. A US Navy nuclear submarine can provide emergency electrical power for Gaza this winter, as one did for the Virgin Islands after Hurricane Hugo in 1989. Military construction battalions, especially the famous Navy "Sea Bees", should be part of the effort to restore critical infrastructure degraded by the embargo and combat operations.
President Obama should immediately direct his Secretary of State and Defense Secretary to coordinate an American inter-agency disaster response effort.
To show our willingness to work with everyone interested in taking care of the widows, orphans and wounded of the Gaza disaster, Arab countries should be invited to provide Arabic-speaking medical personnel to work side-by-side with Americans on the hospital ship.
President Obama could again make history. A deployment of the hospital ship in Gaza would be remembered by Arabs everywhere for generations to come.
* William Bache, of VIM Consultants, is a retired US Army Colonel, writer and interfaith study facilitator based in Istanbul. This article originally appeared in The San Francisco Chronicle's SFGate blog and was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).
Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 3 February 2009, www.commongroundnews.org
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