IDF personnel prepare the search and rescue team for Turkey. Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit.
IDF personnel prepare the search and rescue team for Turkey. Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit.
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Background

‘Operation Olive Branches’: Israel rapidly provides earthquake disaster relief

Israel was among the first nations to provide humanitarian assistance to disaster victims in Turkey—extending its track record of saving lives.

One of the most violent earthquakes to rock the eastern Mediterranean in the past century struck in southern Turkey before dawn on Feb. 6. The 7.8 magnitude quake was followed by dozens of aftershocks—including one with a magnitude of 7.5. Tremors were felt as far afield as Israel and Lebanon. One news producer said, “it felt like it would never be over.” Thousands of buildings collapsed in Turkey and neighboring Syria, trapping people inside, with cold, wet weather impeding relief efforts.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced that Israel had received a request for assistance from the Turkish government. Hours later, the Jewish state sent rescue personnel and medical aid. Israel also received a request for humanitarian aid to Syria, that Netanyahu also approved. The humanitarian initiative was named “Operation Olive Branches.”

The Israel Defense Forces are an integral component of Israeli aid missions, and IDF humanitarians are easily identified by their khaki green uniforms. “Operation Olive Branches” – the army’s 30th humanitarian mission in 41 years, was headed up by Col. Golan Vach, who also led the IDF’s rescue mission at the Surfside, Florida, condo collapse in 2021. Vach stated that it is “an honor to help our friends in Turkey.” In addition to the search-and-rescue and medical teams provided by the IDF, several Israeli non-governmental organizations were also mobilized. United Hatzalah sent dozens of Israeli doctors, medics, rescue operators and psycho-trauma specialists.

Israeli NGOs also routinely provide humanitarian care globally, and this disaster is no exception. IsraAID and Save a Child’s Heart, together with Israel’s foreign ministry, teamed up to fly young South Sudanese children to Tel Aviv for life-saving cardiology treatment. Israel’s ambassador indicated that South Sudan’s president was “very enthusiastic” about the aid mission. The Innovation Africa NGO has delivered clean water and energy to four million Africans across 10 countries through Israeli solar and water technology. Sheba Medical Center—known for its pioneering field hospital in Ukraine—sent doctors to Nigeria to treat children battling eye cancer.

Israel has provided search and rescue teams, medical personnel and supplies following earthquakes, hurricanes and volcanic eruptions in Armenia, Mozambique, Guatemala, Mexico, Nepal, the Philippines, Haiti, India and Indonesia. The IDF continues to offer aid to Syrian civilians and fighters, even though Syria remains in a state of war with Israel.

Israel officially adopted a humanitarian aid agenda as an integral part of the state’s international cooperation efforts in 1958 after then Foreign Minister Golda Meir’s visit to Africa. The Israeli government formed what is now known as the Foreign Ministry’s Center for International Cooperation. The organization’s first project was setting up “eye camps” to treat preventable eye diseases. Since then, Israel has provided humanitarian assistance to more than 140 countries.

Points to consider:

1. Israel is a humanitarian aid leader

Israel is often praised for its humanitarian efforts, especially among emergency responders specializing in disaster relief and medicine. Despite its small size and limited financial resources, Israel has a reputation for being among the first on the ground. Israelis have developed unique expertise as first responders. This was highlighted when the IDF was able to provide three-dimensional modeling of the collapsed Surfside, Florida, condo towers. American search and rescue teams lacked this technology, further cementing the importance of strong Israel-U.S. bilateral relations. Even the U.N. World Health Organization declared the IDF’s Medical Corps field hospital to be the best in the world.

2. Israeli actions are guided by Jewish values

Leviticus 19:16, “Do not stand idly by the blood of your neighbor.” Rashi—the most influential Jewish Bible commentator of the Middle Ages—interpreted this to mean that it is imperative to aid in the rescue of those whose lives are in danger. This verse is part of a larger section of Leviticus that established ethical and moral laws for the Israelites. The command not to harm one’s neighbor’s life is a reminder of the value of human life and the importance of preserving it. This verse is a reminder to treat others with kindness and to not stand idly by when lives can be saved. The Talmud states, “Whoever saves a single life is considered to have saved the whole world.”

3. Israeli aid is unconditional

Israel’s humanitarian and developmental aid efforts are driven by a commitment to help those in need, regardless of nationality, religion or ethnicity. Despite not having diplomatic relations with Indonesia—the most populous Muslim country—Israel sent aid to Indonesia after its 2018 earthquake, and previously signed a medical cooperation agreement. Turkey was once Israel’s closest ally among Muslim countries, highlighted by a strong defense partnership. Turkey also has a vibrant Jewish community, which also is suffering from the effects of the earthquakes. Relations began to deteriorate following Islamist President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s rise to power in 2003. The two countries recently began to reconcile their differences with the restoration of full diplomatic relations announced last year.

4. Israel is a pioneer in developmental assistance

Israel is routinely involved in long-term development programs in developing countries, providing technical assistance, training and resources to help improve food security, health and education. Its most notable contribution is the modern system of drip irrigation developed by an Israeli engineer in the 1960s. Continuing Israeli innovations revolutionized irrigation practices and transformed agriculture in arid regions around the world. Today, Israel has improved millions of lives across Africa and Asia with a host of innovations that make seawater drinkable and the farm-to-table  process more efficient, sustainable and safe.

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