Israel Defense Forces and United Hatzalah rescue personnel in Gaziantep, Turkey, Feb. 8, 2023. Credit: United Hatzalah.
Israel Defense Forces and United Hatzalah rescue personnel in Gaziantep, Turkey, Feb. 8, 2023. Credit: United Hatzalah.

Israeli rescue teams saving lives in Turkey

The most common injuries the United Hatzalah team is encountering are among locals desperately trying to dig people out of the rubble, says a spokesman for the organization.

United Hatzalah, the world’s largest volunteer emergency medical service, has a team of 25 volunteers on the ground in Turkey to help save lives following the devastating earthquakes that have claimed the lives of more than 15,000 people. The team consists of doctors, medics, search-and-rescue specialists and psychotrauma experts, and is working mostly in Gaziantep. The non-profit organization also brought 10 tons of medical supplies and first-responder gear to the disaster site, including first-aid equipment, blankets and clothing.

The operation is being led by IDF Maj. (res.) Yossi Cohen, a United Hatzalah volunteer who is also a reservist in the Home Front Command’s Liaison Unit. The team of volunteers was selected from a pool of 400 United Hatzalah members who had volunteered to go to Turkey. According to Cohen, “It’s a certain type of people” who choose to volunteer in disaster sites.

“The amount of damage wrought by the earthquakes is enormous. We are bringing all of our knowledge and manpower from previous experiences responding to disasters to assist in the rescue efforts currently taking place in Turkey,” said Dov Maisel, United Hatzalah’s vice president of operations.

The aftermath of the earthquake has left a path of destruction and trauma in its wake. UH representative Jeremy Cole told JNS that the first responders are grappling with “the immense grief that is taking place over there” and the psychological impact of their role as first responders. Volunteers on the ground report that residents are forced to burn mattresses and garbage to keep warm in temperatures that have plummeted to negative four degrees Celsius, making the air thick with toxic fumes, he said.

“One of the most shocking things is just the deep trauma that is being inflicted on the population,” he said, adding, “People are still screaming in the buildings.”

The relief organization has already rescued 10 people from one building, and continues to search for more survivors. The team communicates with those trapped by utilizing tapping techniques, and is using thermal drone cameras to locate survivors. In addition to rescuing survivors, the team is also treating multiple cases of hypothermia. Hand injuries are the most common they are encountering—among locals hurt while desperately trying to dig people out of the rubble, Cole told JNS.

A United Hatzalah volunteer searches for survivors in Gaziantep, Turkey, on Feb. 8, 2023. Credit: United Hatzalah.

“We can’t save everyone, but everyone saved is a success. Even if it’s helping a small boy who is lost in the street without his parents, that’s a success,” said Cohen.

There is a mix of both Jewish and Muslim volunteers working on the ground, the latter of which have also been of great help in assisting with translation, he noted.

United Hatzalah has plans to increase the rescue effort fivefold, including bringing in more volunteers and equipment, such as respirators to help the affected residents breathe in the toxic air. The original plan was to stay in the area for a week, but the mission’s duration is now indeterminate.

The Hatzalah team is coordinating its operation with the Israeli Defense Forces. A delegation of 150 IDF rescue experts arrived in Gaziantep last night. The team, led by Col. (res.) Golan Vach, commander of the IDF National Rescue Unit, included a mix of Home Front Command officers and Rescue Service officials. Along with the IDF team, a small group from the IsraAID organization, including trauma experts, also traveled to Gaziantep. The organizations will all work together, to provide immediate assistance and then an initial assessment for long-term aid needs.

A collapsed building in Gaziantep, Turkey, on Feb. 8, 2023. Credit: United Hatzalah.

The IDF operation, dubbed “Olive Branches,” began the search and rescue mission immediately after landing in Adana.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant reached out to Turkish authorities in the aftermath of the quake and quickly approved the establishment of a field hospital in accordance with the needs of Ankara.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog spoke on Monday with his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to offer Israel’s condolences and inform him of the assistance that was sent. Erdogan expressed his appreciation for Israel’s willingness to stand with Turkey in its hour of need.

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