A delegation of dozens of Israeli doctors, medics, rescue operators and psychotrauma specialists took off for southern Turkey on Tuesday afternoon to assist in rescue operations already underway after a devastating earthquake and smaller aftershocks struck the area, killing thousands of people and leaving many more homeless in the heart of winter.
The flight was organized by the United Hatzalah emergency response organization, and was scheduled to land in Gaziantep, one of the cities hardest hit by the tremors.
Earlier in the day, a larger delegation of roughly 150 people from the Israel Defense Force’s Home Front Command landed in the city of Adana to begin operations there and in surrounding areas.
Some 25 volunteers from United Hatzalah were on board the Tuesday afternoon flight, mostly doctors, paramedics and trauma experts, bringing roughly 10 tons of equipment and humanitarian aid along with them.
The delegation was led by Yossi Cohen, a reserve officer in the Home Front Command. Though he is an old hand at rescue operations, this was Cohen’s first time leading such a delegation. The other two dozen or so volunteers on the trip also had ample experience in search-and-rescue missions around the world. Many of them took part in rescue operations on the Ukrainian border last year following Russia’s invasion in February, as well as the deadly earthquake in Nepal in 2015.
“Our primary mission is to join up with the forces there and to try to save lives,” Cohen told the delegation shortly before takeoff.
After landing in Gaziantep, the delegation planned to meet up with an IDF Home Front unit operating nearby and join in their efforts.
“Immediately upon landing, the members of the delegation will work to set up a special command center and a community field clinic, to offer medical assistance, and to help rescue people trapped [in the rubble,]” the organization said.
The vice president of operations for United Hatzalah, Dovi Maisel, who has taken part in many missions to disaster-stricken sites over the years, stressed to the volunteers the significance of their efforts.
“In the midst of this horrible disaster, you may feel small in such a big event, but believe me that your impact is enormous. This is true for you as individuals, for the organization and for the flag of Israel on your shoulder,” he said.
In addition to the United Hatzalah volunteers, a team from Israel’s national search-and-rescue unit was on the flight, bringing the equipment needed for the delicate, complicated and dangerous work of excavating people from collapsed or collapsing buildings.
A small group from the IsraAID organization, including trauma experts, also traveled to Gaziantep on the United Hatzalah flight with a number of water purification systems. The delegation planned to assess the needs on the ground in order to determine what other help was needed going forward, a member of the group said.
The earthquake death toll had passed 5,000 people in both Turkey and Syria as of Tuesday afternoon. The toll was expected to rise, as rescue workers searched mounds of wreckage in cities and towns across the area.
Turkey’s disaster management agency said more than 24,400 emergency personnel were working on the ground, but with such a wide swath of territory hit by Monday’s earthquake and nearly 6,000 buildings confirmed to have collapsed in Turkey alone, their efforts were spread thin.
Israel dispatched an initial delegation on Monday evening, followed by a larger 150-person one early Tuesday morning. The Foreign Ministry was weighing another flight containing humanitarian items and medicine, and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant approved the establishment of an IDF field hospital in Turkey, according to the needs of Turkish authorities, his office said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said earlier Monday that Israel also plans to send aid to Syria, including tents, medication, and blankets. But Syrian sources vigorously denied requesting aid from Israel, and IDF spokesman Ran Kochav told reporters that the military was not involved in potential aid to Syria.
Israel considers Syria a hostile state, and the two do not have diplomatic ties. However, during the neighboring country’s bloody civil war, the IDF carried out a massive humanitarian operation to aid Syrian civilians.
Also Monday, President Isaac Herzog spoke with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan to offer Israel’s condolences on the losses suffered in the deadly earthquake.
Times of Israel staff and agencies contributed to this report.