United Colors of Bandages: Israel’s Secret Sauce

Israel was created to fulfill the ancient promise of the Prophet Jeremiah: “Your children will return to their own land”(31:17). Jews from 130 countrieswho speak more than 100 different languageshave immigrated to Israel. Nearly 70 years after its founding, Israel is a technological powerhouse, in part because it is one of the most diverse places on the planet, with citizens originating in the Middle East, Africa, Iran, Asia, Europe, and North and South America, and with large numbers of Jews, Christians and Muslims.

One outstanding example of this diversity is a partnership between a Jewish Israeli medic who created a revolutionary bandage and a Bedouin Israeli factory owner who employs women to manufacture it.

Bernard Bar-Natan first started thinking about bandages in the 1980s, a few years after he moved to Israel from Brooklyn. When he enlisted in the medic corps of the Israel Defense Forces, he was shocked to learn that the army’s standard bandages were made around World War II and had not been modified since then. All the bandages had a pad in the middle and gauze strings on each side, and Bar-Natan was taught to grab a stone and add additional bandages over a wound to quell the flow of blood. Not only were these methods unsanitary, they required medics to carry large numbers of bandages.

After his military discharge, Bar-Natan began tinkering with alternatives and eventually came up with a bandage with a built-in handlebar (a substitute for a stone) that can provide up to 30 pounds of pressure to stanch bleeding, even with traumatic head injuries. He also invented a “reverse wrap” technique to exert more pressure without additional bandages.

By the early 1990s, Bar-Natan had a prototype. With the help of an Israeli government grant and accelerator program he launched his business, but he lacked a way to mass-produce his Emergency Bandage until he found an unlikely group to help him: Bedouins in northern Israel.

Bar-Natan met Ahmed Heib for the first time in 1996. An acquaintance in the garment industry made the introduction, thinking the two could help each other. Bar-Natan needed a manufacturer for his bandage, and Heib owned a factory. Their initial meeting was awkward. On the surface, the two had little in common: Bar-Natan was a cosmopolitan Jew from Brooklyn, while Heib was a Muslim who grew up in a rural backwater, infamous for its crime and gangs. “He didn’t know who this Ahmed guy [was],” Heib says. Bar-Natan seconds Heib’s assessment: “I thought tailors were only called Mr. Cohen,” he jokes.

Heib, with his low-cost business model and deep knowledge of tailoring, turned out to be the perfect partner for Bar-Natan. Heib initially worked with Bar-Natan through his small factory on the first floor of his house in Tuba-Zangariyya, a town of roughly 6,000 – mostly Muslim Bedouins – near the Jordan River.

The more Bar-Natan and Heib worked together, the more they developed a friendship – especially after two of Heib’s children died at birth. “He is a dear brother,” Heib says of Bar-Natan. “He was here and so was his wife, Gila. They were with us in sad times and good times. They were at the weddings of our three daughters.”

As Bar-Natan’s company grew, so did Heib’s business. He expanded his factory to three floors capable of producing millions of bandages a year. All 50 of his employees are women. “I know that if I didn’t have this factory here, these women would not be working,” Heib says. “Their kids would not have much.” Arij Kabishi, a Druze woman in charge of quality control at Heib’s factory, is grateful for the work and proud of her role. “I feel like I personally took part in the creation of this,” she says, “and [in] saving lives.”

Bar-Natan’s bandage has been a success. Today, the Australian military, the New Zealand military and most NATO countries have adopted it. It’s also standard issuefor the U.S. Army, the Israel Defense Forces and the British Army. In addition, it is used by emergency responders and in hospitals around the world.

Diversity and innovation go hand in hand, so it should come as no surprise that Israel is producing some of the world’s most ground-breaking technology, or that Israeli innovations like the Emergency Bandage are saving lives and making the world a better place.