Anyone who has had the opportunity of meeting Israeli ambassador Shemi Tzur since the February 22 Christchurch earthquake will attest how deeply the tragedy affected the 65 year-old diplomat.

Appointed ambassador at the reopened Israeli Embassy in Wellington less than a year before the quake, Tzur has taken personally his mission to build upon a bilateral relationship that took a severe hit over the Mossad passport-theft operation seven years ago, with a particular focus on engaging individual Kiwis.

Behind the ever-present smile of the down-to-earth ambassador is a warmth and compassion that belies the stereotypes so many have of Israelis: rigid, scheming oppressors.

When the Southland Times' story broke on Wednesday, the allegations that Israeli agents had sought to exploit New Zealand's biggest natural disaster in 80 years to hack into a national police computer network brought all those stereotypes to the forefront.


And my first thought was, welcome to New Zealand, Mr Ambassador.

That some of the claims began to unravel - or at least be called into question - within hours will probably not have diminished the sting he must be feeling.

I have no insight into what triggered the decision by what Prime Minister John Key calls "the relevant agencies" to investigate the actions of Israelis caught up in the quake, or what prompted the unnamed SIS sources to tip off the Times. Israel does have "form" in the passport area and it may well be that some wrongdoing does yet emerge.

What I do find offensive is the apparent willingness with which so many seized on the notion that the way Israelis - both the young visitors and government representatives - responded to the earthquake must be evidence of a suspect agenda.

Take the incident at the center of the story - the rapid departure of the three Israelis who narrowly escaped death when a building collapsed on their van, killing their companion, Ofer Mizrahi. Much is being made of the fact that they flew out of Christchurch airport "within 12 hours."

Yet their quick exit appears in keeping with Tzur's advice to Israelis at the time. He told Israel's Yediot Ahronot on February 22 that he was urging all Israelis in the city to leave: "We've asked them to take a car and drive as far away from here as possible." That Tzur would have driven the shaken trio to the airport himself is quite in character.

The Times called Israel's response to the quake "extraordinary," noting that on that day Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had phoned Key four times; Tzur - "who is based in Australia" - had flown to Christchurch and visited the morgue; Israel's civil defense chief had "left Israel for Christchurch"; and an Israeli search and rescue team had been dispatched.

In fact, according to Key, he and Netanyahu only actually spoke once in those first days. Tzur has been based in Wellington, not Canberra, since April last year. And Israel's civil defense chief, Matan Vilnai, did visit Christchurch, but only nine days later. He flew there not from Israel, but from Australia, where he happened to be on a visit. So much for accuracy.


Beyond that, however, it's open to dispute whether the Israeli response was "extraordinary" at all.

Consider this: An estimated 9,000-10,000 Israelis, most of them young backpackers, visit New Zealand each year and as many as 160 were believed to have been in Christchurch on February 22. With at least one confirmed Israeli fatality and at least 12 others unaccounted for in the days after the quake, the involvement of Tzur and Netanyahu was not unusual - especially for representatives of a small country where every untimely death is keenly felt.

Netanyahu's office in a statement issued on that day said the prime minister had phoned Key to express condolences and "offered to assist the rescue efforts to save people trapped in the rubble." Key on Wednesday confirmed the substance of the conversation.

Even when its citizens are not considered to be at risk, Israel has acquired a reputation over decades of quickly offering and dispatching world-class search and rescue teams to the scenes of disasters.

Armed with specialized equipment and dogs, the Israelis played a key role in search and rescue and recovery efforts after earthquakes in Turkey, Greece, Armenia and Mexico, and in Kenya after al-Qaeda bombed the US Embassy in 1998. Israel has even reached out to hostile countries, including Iran after the 2003 Bam earthquake and Pakistan after the devastating Kashmir quake two years later. (The offers were rejected.)

Within 48 hours of the Jan. 12 earthquake in Haiti last year, Israel had dispatched two jumbo jets carrying more than 100 doctors, nurses and paramedics and equipment to set up a sophisticated emergency field hospital near Port-au-Prince airport.

Israel's response to the Christchurch earthquake was in keeping with that long record, not out of the ordinary at all.

Still, it didn't take long for the likes of Phil Goff and Keith Locke - not among Israel's greatest friends in this country - to mutter darkly about Mossad activities and call for Key to "come clean."

Several days after the quake, Tzur pondered the enormity of the tragedy.

"I have spent much of the past week in Christchurch - and I, too, struggle to adequately describe the horrendous trail of destruction left, in particular, at the city's downtown and eastern suburbs," he wrote in a report carried by an Australian-based Jewish news service, J-Wire.

"I have witnessed many horrific incidents in my life, but nothing matches the horrors that we witnessed in Christchurch," the ambassador told J-Wire a few days later. "I feel for all involved and especially the families of the victims."

Thank you, Mr Tzur. And may I just add, sorry.

Patrick Goodenough is an Auckland-based journalist.