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February 8, 2023 5:43 pm

Israeli Ambassador to Turkey: A ‘New Page’ in Relations Amid Devastating Tragedy


avatar by Andrew Bernard

An Israeli rescue team works to find survivors in southern Turkey following a pair of massive earthquakes, 8 February 2023 (Photo: Israeli government)

As the death toll in Turkey and Syria from a pair of devastating earthquakes crosses 12,000 on Wednesday, Israel is stepping up rescue efforts alongside dozens of other countries in a race against time and freezing temperatures to find additional survivors.

“Already on [Monday] evening, the first advance team arrived to the site,” Israeli Ambassador Irit Lillian told The Algemeiner in an interview Wednesday. “Unlike in previous natural disasters that have occurred in Turkey, this time the [Turkish] Minister of Interior moved immediately after the announcement of the earthquake and said ‘we will need international assistance.’”

Once that request was made, Israel moved to send a team that they had already begun assembling “within minutes” of hearing of the scale of the disaster. So far, that team includes 150 people from the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Ministry of Foreign Affairs, led by Israeli Ambassador David Saranga. The Israeli government said Wednesday that an additional 230 medical personnel and tons of medical equipment sent on 15 planes had arrived in the area that evening.

“In the last 24 hours since the rescue delegation arrived to the scene, they have already rescued five people,” Saranga said at a press conference Wednesday. “If you are not there you cannot even imagine the tragedy. I was walking in neighborhoods in which half of the buildings are collapsed. They were totally destroyed.”

The 7.8 and 7.5 moment magnitude earthquakes struck 9 hours apart on Monday, with epicenters near the Turkish city of Gazianetep, close to the border with Syria. Some 13.5 million people live in the affected area.

While Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said Israel will also extend aid to Syria, Israeli officials Wednesday declined to comment on those efforts. They also said that the precise locations of the Israeli teams in Turkey could not be disclosed for security reasons.

While the rescue teams continue their operations, Israel is now sending a “convoy” of planes to the area to set up a field hospital and deliver other humanitarian aid.

“The most important step that is ahead of us is the establishment of the field hospital,” Lillian said. “The only thing that I fear is that the facility which was offered to us in order to build the hospital might not be safe enough. There are still earthquakes in the region. We’re trying to find safer ground to make sure that the hospital will be able to function no matter the outside conditions.”

According to the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s readout of the call between Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan on Tuesday, Erdogan thanked Herzog for the rescue mission and expressed his “gratitude for Israel’s stand alongside its friend, Türkiye, at this difficult hour.”

Lillian said that while relations between Israel and Turkey have warmed in recent years, the political situation didn’t factor into Israel’s decision to send humanitarian aid.

“We all know that the Palestinian question is very close to President Erdogan’s heart,” she said. “But nevertheless, we’ve warmed up relations in the past year. Ambassadors from both sides came back to capitals and we decided to open a new page.”

“I believe that President Erdogan was very sincere when he thanked Israel,” she continued. “And in such cases, you don’t judge ‘what are the stances of this person on other political issues?’”

Lillian said  that at the moment, two members of the Antakya Jewish community are the only known Jewish or Israeli persons unaccounted for in the devastation.

Lillian said that Israel’s efforts fulfil a well-known Jewish proverb about helping others.

“The one who saves one soul saves an entire world  and that is the light that is showing our path here,” she said. “We really believe that what our people are doing there is saving lives, saving an entire universe.”

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