Israeli rescue teams, volunteers, save lives in quake-ravaged Nepal

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After the devastating magnitude 7.8 earthquake hit Nepal on April 25, killing and wounding thousands and leaving the impoverished, mountainous nation in ruins, Israeli and Jewish humanitarian and governmental organizations rushed in to offer help.

In the hours following the quake, Israelis visiting or living in Nepal began pouring into the Chabad center and Israeli Embassy in Kathmandu seeking emergency shelter, medical aid and contact with home.

Magen David Adom paramedic Ravit Martinez (white cap) assists in search-and-rescue operation in Kathmandu

Within 24 hours, aid began arriving from Israel, spearheaded by a nine-member paramedics team from Magen David Adom, which arrived in Kathmandu on April 26 with supplies ranging from medicines to baby formula to bandages.

On April 27, a 20-person delegation coordinated by IsraeLife and including volunteers from United Hatzalah, Zaka and other emergency responders arrived with a field hospital and set up operations in Kathmandu and a small village on the city’s periphery. Efforts focused on treating injuries, pulling people out of rubble, rescuing victims from remote locations and consoling the bereaved.

Dov Maisel, a member of the joint delegation and a United Hatzalah volunteer, described the horrendous conditions in the field, saying, “Many communities have been utterly destroyed … their hospital or medical center is gone — they have nothing.

“It is very difficult. After this kind of incident you have many wounded people who have nowhere to go — and they have fractures, an infected cut — all sorts of wounds … and they have no one treating them. Our mission is to help as many people as possible,” he said.

According to IsraeLife CEO Eli Pollak, “We are preparing for a long stay.”

Devastation in Kathmandu after the April 25 earthquake photo/ wikipedia-hilmi hacaloÄŸlu

On April 28, an Israel Defense Forces team landed in Kathmandu with 260 personnel, setting up a 60-bed field hospital in coordination with a local Nepalese army hospital. The Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported that during its first full day of operation, the Israeli hospital treated 98 patients, performed three life-saving operations and one Caesarian section.

According to figures reported by CNN, Israel’s  official aid delegation to Nepal, not counting private aid groups, outnumbers the rescue personnel sent by all other nations combined.

It is the largest aid convoy ever sent by the IDF overseas, including the field hospitals Israel deployed to Haiti, the Philippines and Japan in recent years following natural disasters.

“You are being sent on an important mission,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, addressing the Israeli relief team headed by IDF Col. Yoram Laredo. “This is the true face of Israel — a country that offers aid over any distance at such moments.”

The Israelis are offering humanitarian assistance to the Nepalese, who are struggling to treat more than 9,000 victims. At least 5,000 people were confirmed dead by midweek, a number expected to double as rescuers continue to sift through the rubble. Prime Minister Sushil Koirala told Reuters the death toll could reach 10,000, as information on damage from distant villages and towns has yet to come in.

Some early Israeli efforts focused on locating Israelis throughout the country and transporting them home. More than 300 Israelis, plus 26 infants born to surrogate Nepalese mothers, had arrived back in Israel from Nepal as of April 28. Nepal is a major destination for Israelis seeking surrogates to carry their babies to term, since surrogacy is illegal in Israel for same-sex couples. (See story, page 12)

Volunteers distribute hot food to hungry Nepalese survivors at the Chabad center in Kathmandu on April 29. photo/chabad.org-chabad of nepal

After the departures of families and babies, Israel turned its focus to rescuing dozens of Israeli backpackers stranded in remote areas of the country.

Israel’s “top priority is to locate and extricate Israelis in distress and to help them return safely to Israel,” Netanyahu said as he held high-level consultations in his Jerusalem office to assess the situation.

 Two Israelis reportedly declined to be evacuated from Nepal, saying they wished to stay and help the locals.

On April 28, Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman spoke with his Nepalese counterpart and conveyed Israel’s condolences on the great loss of life in the earthquake. He also thanked Nepal Foreign Minister Mahendra Bahadur Pandey for Nepalese assistance in rescuing stranded Israelis, according to the Foreign Ministry.

Pandey thanked Lieberman on behalf of his people for the aid being sent from Israel, the statement said.

The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, which has provided relief to dozens of natural disaster zones over the last century and currently works in more than 70 countries, said it is partnering with the IDF field hospital in Kathmandu through providing equipment such as neonatal incubators. JDC said that while it provides immediate aid, it is also laying the foundation for longer-term relief efforts in Nepal.

Magen David Adom crews, prepared with specialized prenatal incubators and equipment, await the arrival of surrogate babies born to Israeli parents. photo/courtesy magen david adom

JDC’s director of communications, Michael Geller, spoke about the “dire situation” on the ground exacerbated by Nepal’s challenging weather, difficult terrain and deep poverty.

“This is the worst earthquake of its kind in 80 years for Nepal, and it is happening in a country that has other challenges it was dealing with before the earthquake. So the combination of these factors can create a very harrowing situation on the ground,” said Geller.

JDC’s main goal during the emergency stage, he said, is to “ensure that aid is given to the people as quickly as possible.” The personnel at the IDF field hospital have “proven that they are effectively able to get into disaster zones quickly and treat people.”

In the longer term, JDC’s mission is the “restoration of livelihood,” which includes setting up schools, medical care, post-traumatic support and disaster mitigation, according to Geller.

“We work with local communities, municipalities and volunteer organizations in the countries where the disaster has happened to help them help themselves and ensure that when the next disaster happens, they can organize an effective response,” he said.

Geller noted the outpouring of support and inquiries and praised the American Jewish community for “coming together to support the people of Nepal” and showing “dedication to tikkun olam,” or repairing the world.

The Jewish Federations of North America is raising funds for relief efforts in Nepal, as it has done in the past for natural and man-made disasters in locations such as the Philippines, Haiti, Japan and elsewhere. While humanitarian groups gear up to provide both short- and long-term assistance, the Israeli government’s direct aid mission will last at least two to three weeks, according to Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Paul Hirschson. After that point, Israel will work on long-term relief with the international community.

“This is what we specialize in and are known for,” Hirschson said, while describing conditions on the ground in Nepal as “very difficult.” After the initial operation, the aid mission “begins an entirely different phase of rehabilitation and reconstruction,” he said. “Israel will participate to the best of our abilities together with the international community. The Foreign Ministry has already had an initial internal discussion as to what contribution we will be able to make, and a team is working on that, but for now the focus is on saving lives.” 

J. staff and wire services contributed to this report.