The devastating earthquake in southern Turkey that has killed thousands of people—with a rapidly rising death toll as operations to clear the rubble continue and winter temperatures drop—is a stark reminder of how external events that cannot be predicted can impact domestic politics and foreign policy. Governments have no roles in the unfolding of natural disasters, but the aftermath of the earthquake and Ankara’s response will have direct consequences on Turkey’s May election, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s political future, voting patterns beyond this election for Turkish Kurds, Turkey’s relationship with European and Middle Eastern states, and Turkish military operations in Syria, among many other things. Many states beyond Turkey will be affected, and Israel should seize the opportunity to help out Turkey and also not ignore an important wake-up call that should spur it to help itself.
The Israeli government’s response to the destruction in Turkey was typical of Israel’s response in these situations, which is to quickly mobilize aid efforts. One of the areas in which Israel excels is responding to medical and humanitarian disasters around the world, and true to form, multiple Israeli teams of doctors, nurses, search and rescue workers, and IDF logistics personnel went to Turkey this week to assist in rescue and recovery and to set up a field hospital. Israel is known for its expertise in this type of work, but it is also built into the state’s DNA, dating back to well before Israel was a leader in any of these fields. David Ben Gurion wrote a famous essay in the early 1960s where he argued that despite Israel’s own continued reliance on foreign aid and assistance from Diaspora Jews and its own challenges in building an economy and absorbing new immigrants, it had a moral obligation to help other countries. He put forth Israel as a model in trying to solve problems of economic development, life expectancy, agricultural innovation, and constructing a uniform society out of disparate communities, and posited that part of Israel’s mission was to use this newfound knowledge and experience to others’ benefit. He closed the essay by writing, “the Jewish people, which throughout its four thousand years of existence has believed in the supremacy of the spirit and in love for the stranger and sojourner…its contribution to the establishment of the new world will bring it peace, security, and the world’s respect.”
Ben Gurion deeply believed that Israel had an obligation to act as a force for good on the world stage in helping other countries in need, and that doing so would not only accrue to Israel’s spiritual benefit but would also tangibly boost Israel’s global standing. There were both humanitarian and instrumental reasons for Israel to act as a good neighbor. Over half a century later, the Israel beset with the challenges of a new and economically struggling state that Ben Gurion described is no more, but Israel’s response to natural disasters overseas still checks both the humanitarian and instrumental boxes. Israel’s critics deride its deployment of doctors and emergency workers as entirely self-interested hasbara efforts, which is a mendacious charge that ignores the genuine Israeli tradition rooted in Jewish principles to help others in need. At the same time, Israeli humanitarian assistance is also deployed to boost Israel’s image and expand its soft power, and that aspect may be more important now than ever. Israeli assistance to Turkey—and to Syria, despite the Syrian regime’s feigned denials—does not make the government’s plans for the judiciary less worrisome, or its treatment of Palestinians less problematic, or its hedging on Ukraine less suspect. But those things don’t make its assistance to non-Israelis in need any less laudable, and Israel should make the most of this opportunity to remind people of the obvious good it does for the world while rejecting all efforts to erase its good deeds in light of its alleged sins.
The destruction wrought by the earthquake should also be an urgent warning for the Israeli government, because the scenes out of southeastern Turkey and northern Syria may be duplicated inside Jerusalem if Israel does not make major policy changes in how it administers its capital. The second-largest Palestinian neighborhood in East Jerusalem is Kufr Aqab, and it is easily identifiable when looking at neighborhoods in the northern part of the city because it contains so many high-rises. What cannot be ascertained by looking at Kufr Aqab is the reason it contains so many high-rises. The neighborhood is part of the Jerusalem municipality but beyond the security barrier, which means that there is little Israeli presence there and consequently no enforcement of building codes and regulations. Palestinian residents of Jerusalem who want to maintain their residency in the city but cannot build new homes or expand their existing ones because of the extreme difficulty of getting construction permits in Palestinian neighborhoods of East Jerusalem often move to Kufr Aqab, where they can build whatever they want or purchase larger apartments for comparatively cheap prices. As a result, Kufr Aqab houses approximately 65,000 Palestinians in 12- or 13-story buildings that were not properly planned, not properly engineered, and not properly constructed, and that don’t have functioning sewage systems or adequate roads to access them.
Now imagine what will happen in Kufr Aqab if a large earthquake strikes Jerusalem, which historically happens about once a century given the city’s location along the Dead Sea Fault and last took place in 1927. The devastation in Turkey is partially a result of high-rises that were built while ignoring building codes, and Kufr Aqab likely rivals any urban neighborhood in Turkey or Syria in that regard. An earthquake in Jerusalem would devastate Kufr Aqab more than any other neighborhood in the city due to the combination of tall buildings and shoddy construction, and the loss of life would be compounded by the difficulty emergency vehicles and large rubble-clearing equipment would have accessing collapsed buildings given the narrow and inadequate roads. It would be a humanitarian disaster that would be fed by a political disaster given the way in which the Palestinian neighborhood is neglected by the municipal government and literally walled off from the rest of the city. Israel would face ceaseless questions about inequities inside its own capital and how it can claim to be sovereign over an eternally undivided Jerusalem while allowing a no-man’s-land to fester.
There are different ways to solve this problem, from creating a sub-municipality for Kufr Aqab and the Shuafat refugee camp—both of which are part of Jerusalem but were placed beyond the separation barrier—to allowing the Palestinian Authority to take over Kufr Aqab given Israel’s demonstrable lack of interest in what goes on there, to actually treating the neighborhood like other parts of Jerusalem and providing it with funding, municipal services, and enforced health and safety regulations. But ignoring the neighborhood altogether, which has been the policy for years, is doing a huge disservice to its residents, and it is laying the groundwork for that disservice to morph into a catastrophe whenever the next inevitable Jerusalem earthquake strikes. The awful scenes out of Turkey and Syria are an opportunity for Israel to do good beyond its own borders, but they should also serve as a flashing red warning light spurring Israel to do good inside its own borders too.