An El Al plane carrying 216 Israelis from Nepal landed at Ben Gurion Airport early Tuesday afternoon, as rescue workers pressed on with efforts to reach Israeli tourists stranded in remote areas, devastated by a massive earthquake that has killed at least 4,438 people.
Among the passengers were 15 surrogate-born children caught up in the quake.
The relieved arrivals were greeted by family members and medics on the tarmac.
“We thank everyone who took initiative and helped out — it was very difficult,” Eran Koren, who returned to the country with two infants born from a surrogate mother, told the Walla news site upon arrival. “We were with the babies in a tent; it was cold.”
He said that the flight was postponed numerous times, “but in the end we knew that they would help us.”
Israeli Ambassador to Nepal Yaron Meir told Israel Radio that two helicopters were engaged in a search for over 60 Israeli hikers in the remote Langtang National Park.
Some 20 Israelis were rescued by helicopters hired by the Phoenix insurance company from a tourist site near the border with Tibet.
In all, four Israelis have yet to establish contact since the earthquake, down from 50 on Monday, according to a report on Israel’s Channel 2.
Earlier, a second group of 10 Israeli backpackers was rescued in the Everest area near the Tibetan border by a rescue team sent by Phoenix, Channel 2 reported. Four Israelis had already been rescued from the slopes of Mount Everest, where they had been trapped in the wake of the earthquake, on Monday.
— Israel Foreign Ministry (@IsraelMFA) April 28, 2015
Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman said that additional staff from Israeli embassies in nearby countries would be sent to Kathmandu as soon as conditions permit.
Liberman called his Nepalese counterpart, Bahadur Pandey, on Tuesday and offered his condolences. Pandey thanked Liberman for assistance and said the Nepalese people appreciated the help provided by Israel, the Foreign Ministry said.
Liberman thanked Pandey for the cooperation of Nepalese authorities in making possible the use of helicopters to search for Israeli hikers stranded in remote locations. According to the Foreign Ministry, Pandey gave Liberman permission to use helicopters hired by Israel from India and China to rescue stranded Israelis.
The Foreign Ministry said that some locals were “thronging” the helicopters, “complicating the rescue efforts.”
On Monday evening, an IDF plane carrying Israelis doctors, search and rescue teams and other aid personnel landed in Kathmandu, and the medical team immediately prepared to set up a field hospital in the quake-struck capital. An additional four planes were expected to arrive on Tuesday.
Aboard the flight were some 200 Israeli doctors and emergency specialists. Professor Jonathan Halevy, director of Jerusalem’s Shaare Zedek Hospital, is to head the IDF’s field hospital in Nepal.
“I am very proud to be here. We will set up next to the army hospital in Kathmandu,” Halevy told NRG upon landing. “We’re arriving with a full hospital for treating those injured in this disaster, and we’re expecting to see diseases we’re not used to seeing in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.
“These are casualties of diseases that are the result of an international disaster, and the result of poor hygiene, and perhaps we’ll see the effects of tropical diseases,” he said.
Hundreds of thousands of Nepalis spent another night in the open Monday after the massive quake. The death toll has reached more than 4,438, but officials warned the final toll could rise sharply once rescuers reach cut-off areas.
Despite the massive Israeli operation, stranded hikers urged their parents on Monday afternoon to press the Foreign Ministry to accelerate its efforts, saying their lives were in immediate danger.
Channel 2 reported that a group of hikers stranded in a decimated village sent an urgent appeal to their relatives, saying the local Nepalis had “grown violent” after the Israelis took food.
“We need to be rescued immediately. The local Nepalis have grown violent because we took food from a village that collapsed,” Shahar Zakai, who is with dozens of other Israelis, wrote to his brother.
Naama Shohat wrote to her mother that a hiker in her group is suffering from a head wound that is becoming infected, the Ynet news site reported. She described the area as hazardous and said there were boulders all around, and rockslides “every few minutes.”
“We can’t stay here, it’s very dangerous. We can’t move, all the roads are blocked,” she wrote.
A Magen David Adom plane landed Monday afternoon at Tel Aviv’s Sde Dov airport, carrying five babies born to Israeli couples through surrogate mothers. The children and parents were all reported to be in good health.
Nepal is a major destination for Israeli families seeking surrogate mothers to bear their children. Following Saturday’s disaster, families of 26 babies recently born to Israelis in the Asian nation appealed to the Israeli government to help bring their children to Israel as quickly as possible, citing the newborns’ fragile state and the current harsh conditions in Nepal, which could endanger them.
Interior Minister Gilad Erdan waived the usual bureaucratic hurdles to bringing the children into the country in the wake of the quake. The newborns are all expected to arrive with Israeli rescue missions in the next few days.
With fears rising of food and water shortages, Nepalis were rushing to stores and gas stations to stock up on essential supplies in the capital Kathmandu. Saturday’s 7.8-magnitude quake is the Himalayan nation’s deadliest disaster in more than 80 years.
More than 100 people have been killed in neighboring India and China while a further 7,900 people were injured in Nepal.
Senior disaster management official Rameshwor Dangal said the toll in Nepal could jump once rescuers discovered the full extent of devastation in villages outside Kathmandu.
“Rescue operations are underway, and in many places where buildings have collapsed there might be people trapped,” Dangal, the home ministry’s national disaster management chief, told AFP.
“We are also in the process of getting information from villages, and these will add to the death toll.”
Families who work in Kathmandu were packing onto buses, some even sitting on the roofs, leaving the city, many for their home villages to determine the damage there.
Mothers clutching children and men hauling bags were seen bargaining with drivers of the many buses clogging the roads out of the capital.
The exodus came as international rescue teams with sniffer dogs raced to find survivors buried in rubble, and teams equipped with heavy cutting gear and relief supplies landed at the nation’s only international airport.
Elisabeth Byrs, a spokeswoman for the UN’s World Food Program, told AFP the agency would launch a “large, massive operation” with the first plane carrying rations set to arrive on Tuesday.
The Nepalese rescuers were being joined by hundreds of foreign aid workers from countries including China, India and the United States.
Hospitals have been overwhelmed, with morgues overflowing and medics working flat out to cope with an endless stream of victims suffering trauma or multiple fractures.
The quake’s epicenter was around 73 kilometers (45 miles) east of the town of Pokhara, the country’s center for adventure sports. An AFP correspondent reported the town had been largely unaffected and tourists were continuing their vacations.
Nepal and the rest of the Himalayas, where the Indian and Eurasia tectonic plates collide, are particularly prone to earthquakes.
A 6.8 magnitude quake hit eastern Nepal in August 1988 killing 721 people, and a magnitude 8.1 quake killed 10,700 people in Nepal and India in 1934.