Kerre McIvor

Kerre McIvor is a Herald on Sunday columnist

Kerre Woodham: Israeli backpackers - were they spooks?

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The white van that suspected Israeli spies were in when the February 22 earthquake struck Christchurch. Photo / Simon Baker
The white van that suspected Israeli spies were in when the February 22 earthquake struck Christchurch. Photo / Simon Baker

I'm not usually one for conspiracy theories. I don't believe the moon landings were faked by Nasa. Nor do I believe there was another gunman on a grassy knoll who took a pot-shot at President John F. Kennedy. I don't even believe that Suzie the South African waitress served the All Blacks tainted food, thus scuppering our chances of winning the Rugby World Cup in 1995.

But I really do have doubts that the Israeli nationals who were caught up in the Christchurch earthquake in February were simple backpackers.

The Prime Minister has assured us they were. The Israeli ambassador finds it offensive that we would even raise doubts about the authenticity of the young people.

But really, it was all very odd. The multiple passports found in the backpackers' van don't bother me too much. Travelling on an Israeli or US passport makes you a target in some parts of the world, so there may well be a valid reason for carrying more than one passport.

But for a country to be able to identify four of its nationals caught up in a natural disaster, make contact with them and whip them out of the country within 12 hours is absolutely remarkable, especially given the chaos that was going on in Christchurch.

For the Prime Minister of Israel to, firstly, know he had citizens in trouble and, secondly, ring his counterpart in New Zealand, at a time when he knew the Prime Minister was a little busy trying to manage the disaster, not once but four times, is also truly extraordinary.

Isn't that what officials on the ground are paid to do?

And how about a search-and-rescue team arriving within 24 hours and proceeding to track down Israeli nationals, despite the fact they weren't authorised or welcome? It shows more than a bit of tunnel-visioned determination.

I know it's a subjective thing, but who would leave a dead mate to the mercy of the authorities in a foreign country?

The Israeli ambassador said the young people were shocked and frightened and just wanted to return home - but not one of them thought it would be the decent thing to stay with the body of their friend? I find that weird.

Those scornfully suggesting that New Zealand is far too backward and out of the way to attract Israeli interests should remember New Zealand wasn't so far away or backward to prevent two Mossad agents from stealing the identities of dead New Zealand children some years back.

I wouldn't describe that as a minor "kerfuffle", as the Jerusalem Post called it. More an appalling breach of trust.

There may well be completely plausible reasons these backpackers were given so much special attention.

Maybe the Government of Israel gives all its nationals this gilt-edged service. Maybe there are teams of Israeli officials scattered throughout the world, poised and ready to spring into action to rescue any Israeli citizen who finds themselves in strife. Maybe there is not one Israeli sparrow or backpacker that falls without the Prime Minister knowing about it and acting on it.

There may well be a perfectly reasonable explanation. I just haven't heard it yet.

- Herald on Sunday

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