Israel begins drill simulating receipt of international earthquake aid

18 countries, EU and UN involved in 4-day exercise focused on accepting help from allied nations on a large scale in future major national disaster

Emanuel (Mannie) Fabian is The Times of Israel's military correspondent

Illustrative: IDF search and rescue teams work to find survivors after an earthquake in Turkey on February 10, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)
File: IDF search and rescue teams work to find survivors after an earthquake in Turkey on February 10, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israeli emergency authorities on Sunday began a major four-day exercise simulating the receipt of tons of aid from allied nations amid a devastating earthquake, the Defense Ministry said.

The drill, led by the National Emergency Management Authority (NEMA), will involve 120 participants from 18 countries — Albania, Austria, Belgium, Bosnia, Bulgaria, Cyprus, the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Latvia, North Macedonia, Malta, Montenegro, Romania, Spain, Sweden, along with Israel — as well as the European Union and United Nations.

According to the ministry, the drill will simulate all the emergency procedures following a major earthquake, including the decision to request international assistance, integrating foreign rescue teams with Israeli teams, and receiving and distributing international aid to various locations across the country,

A NEMA official told The Times of Israel ahead of the exercise that Israel has never been on the receiving side of earthquake aid. After last month’s devastating quake that hit southeastern Turkey — to which Israel sent search and rescue teams and a field hospital — officials realized the importance of coordinating receiving aid.

The drill will first simulate officials sending out a call to allied nations for assistance, and then filtering the relevant responses, depending on the severity of the situation and the needs of Israeli authorities to respond to the earthquake.

At the next stage, international search and rescue teams — in skeleton crew form — will arrive at Ben Gurion Airport and the Allenby Crossing with Jordan, join up with teams from the military’s Home Front Command and Health Ministry, and travel to several locations across the country to simulate rescue operations.

Meanwhile, other international aid will continue to arrive at the airport over the next days and be distributed accordingly.

Officials at the National Emergency Management Authority (NEMA) headquarters are seen during a drill simulating receiving international earthquake aid, March 12, 2023. (Defense Ministry)

The official said nearly all of Israel’s government ministries are involved in the drill, along with the Israel Defense Forces and police, under the assumption that they will all remain operational during a major earthquake.

“There is no system failure, the immigration systems are continuing to work, the airports are still running… the Defense Ministry is able to help with transporting aid teams to their locations, the Communications Ministry is able to approve the aid teams communication frequencies, the Environmental Protection Ministry is able to approve materials entering the country, and so on,” the official said.

NEMA plans to hold similar drills of receiving international aid amid a simulated war, a large terror attack, and a mass disaster, as well as other earthquake-related exercises this year.

The director of NEMA, Yoram Laredo, said 2023 was designated as the year to “focus on improving national earthquake preparedness, with the devastating earthquake in Turkey further enhancing the challenges that we face.”

“The highly esteemed cooperation with our partners abroad is a crucial element in achieving this and enhances the State of Israel’s capacity to receive extensive humanitarian aid in emergency situations,” he said, in remarks provided by the ministry.

Israel lies along an active fault line — the Great Rift Valley, or the Syrian African Rift, a tear in the earth’s crust that includes the area of the border separating Israel and Jordan.

There have been several minor tremors over the past month.

The last major earthquake to hit the region was in 1927 — a 6.2-magnitude tremor that killed 500 people and injured 700 — and seismologists estimate that such earthquakes occur in this region approximately every 100 years.

Tel Aviv University researchers published a study in 2020 warning that such an earthquake, large enough to cause hundreds of fatalities, will likely hit the country in the coming years.

NEMA — also known by its Hebrew acronym RAHEL — which was formed in 2007 following the previous year’s Second Lebanon War, was meant to act as an oversight body for the country’s various emergency response organizations, directing them in times of crisis.

However, it has in practice been largely ineffectual, in part due to the fact that its power is derived from easily changeable government decisions, rather than a more permanent legislative authority. After its staff and budget were gutted in recent years and in part due to political considerations, NEMA was largely sidelined during the coronavirus pandemic, playing an inconsequential role during precisely the type of event it was meant to oversee.

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