Israeli and Jewish groups on frontline of Nepal earthquake relief efforts

by | May 1, 2015 | Other News

After a devastating earthquake measuring 7.9 on the Richter scale hit the impoverished mountainous country of Nepal last month, killing more than 5,000 people, Israeli and Jewish humanitarian and governmental organizations assumed their traditional role on the frontline of relief efforts for a natural disaster.

The 260-member Israeli government mission to Nepal includes an Israel Defense Forces (IDF) field hospital, a trained rescue team, and a security team, with the objectives of assisting the Nepalese people and evacuating Israeli citizens who are stranded in the country.

Paul Hirschson, an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman, says the conditions on the ground in Nepal are “very difficult.

“The rescue mission is headed up by the Israeli ambassador to Nepal and the foreign ministry’s deputy director general, who quickly arrived in Kathmandu (Nepal’s capital) from Jerusalem,” Hirschson says.

“At present, this includes collecting information; providing shelter (for some 200 Israelis at the Jewish state’s Nepalese embassy); securing contact with Israelis, as there remain some 100 who are unaccounted for (at press time); extracting Israelis still stranded in outlying areas; preparing for the arrival of the aid mission; arranging for the flights to land; and securing locations for the field hospitals,” adds Hirschson.

“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.”

Also sending rescue teams from Israel to Nepal were the humanitarian and emergency response organizations Magen David Adom (MDA), United Hatzalah, Zaka, F.I.R.S.T., IsraLife, IsraAID, and others, as well as the private insurance companies Harel and Phoenix.

An MDA spokesman says that the organization’s main goal is to “help the injured Israelis and groups of disconnected Israelis,” but that MDA has also worked at a military hospital to treat Nepalese citizens who have sustained abdominal injuries, chest injuries and broken legs and arms.

The Israeli government and MDA also started evacuating surrogate-born babies and their parents to Israel. Nepal is a major destination for Israeli families seeking surrogate mothers for their children. Israel has waived the legal and bureaucratic hurdles to their return. Hirschson says that five babies were immediately taken to Israel and that about 18 remain in Nepal (at press time), with efforts to bring them to Israel pending a medical assessment to determine if they can fly.

“If any are assessed not to be able to fly, they will be looked after at the Israeli field hospital,” Hirschson says.

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

JDC’s director of communications, Michael Geller, says that reports on the ground in Nepal present a “dire situation” that has been exacerbated by Nepal’s challenging weather, difficult terrain and deep poverty.

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

JDC’s main goal during the emergency stage, Geller says, is to “ensure that aid is given to the people as quickly as possible.” The personnel at the IDF field hospital, he says, 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,” including 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 says.

Geller praises the American Jewish community for “coming together to support the people of Nepal,” noting the outpouring of support and inquiries about JDC’s relief operations.

“I think that is one of the outstanding features of the Jewish community, its ability to come together and respond to crises and to show its dedication to Tikkun Olam,” he says.

While JDC and other humanitarian groups gear up to provide both shortterm and long-term assistance, the Israeli government’s direct aid mission will last at least two to three weeks, according to the foreign ministry’s Hirschson. After that point, Israel will work on long-term relief with the international community.

“Beyond that (two-to-three week) time frame, begins an entirely different phase of rehabilitation and reconstruction,” Hirschon says. “Israel will participate to the best of our abilities with the international community. The foreign ministry has had an initial internal discussion as to what contribution we will make, and a team is working on that, but for now the focus is on saving lives.”

—With reporting by Alina Dain Sharon

by Sean Savage/