Some Israeli rescuers depart Turkey over safety fears, as locals fume at government

United Hatzalah says it was pressed to leave due to threats stemming from neighboring Syria and growing civil unrest; separately, IDF ends rescue efforts, focusing on medical care

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

The United Hatzalah rescue delegation that was dispatched to Turkey after the country's devastating earthquakes pose for a photograph on February 12, 2023. (United Hatzalah)
The United Hatzalah rescue delegation that was dispatched to Turkey after the country's devastating earthquakes pose for a photograph on February 12, 2023. (United Hatzalah)

A delegation from the United Hatzalah emergency response organization to Turkey is cutting short its mission and returning to Israel early over security concerns, the group said Sunday.

United Hatzalah sent a group of some 40 volunteers, mostly medical professionals, who assisted in the rescue efforts in southern Turkey, specifically in Kahramanmaraş, also known as Marash, one of the cities hit hardest by last week’s earthquakes. The delegation had been initially scheduled to return after 10 days. It had already planned to come back slightly earlier, but decided to return even earlier because of an unspecified “concrete and immediate threat, according to Dovi Maisel, the vice president of operations for the organization.

A spokesperson for the organization said there was not necessarily one specific threat driving the decision but that there were two more general concerns: proximity to the Syrian border and the Turkish city of Gaziantep, which has seen Islamic State activity over the years, and growing unrest among Turkish citizens over their government’s poor response to the earthquake.

The United Hatzalah spokesperson said residents of Marash and the surrounding area, where over 10,000 people are estimated to have been killed in the tremors, are growing increasingly frustrated with the government’s handling of the earthquakes — particularly a decision to rapidly bury victims in mass graves — and there are concerns that this may result in violence.

“There were threats against different international delegations to kidnap people and hold them ransom so the government would not be able to fulfill its plan. Not just the Israeli team is wrapping up, but a lot of other teams have started to wrap up because of this as well, because of the way that the locals are taking the government message,” the spokesperson said.

Israeli and local rescue teams working at the site of a building collapse in Marash, Turkey, February 8, 2023. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

On Saturday, Austrian military and German civilian rescue workers suspended their search operations in Turkey, in nearby Hatay, due to a worsening security situation, their representatives said.

A spokesman for the Austrian army said that there had been “clashes between groups,” without giving details. He told AFP the 82 soldiers from the Austrian Forces Disaster Relief Unit were sheltering in the southern Hatay province “in a base camp with other international organizations, awaiting instructions.”

A similar decision to halt rescue operations was made in Germany by the Federal Agency for Technical Relief (TSW) and an NGO specializing in helping victims of natural disasters, ISAR Germany, according to an NGO spokesman.

“In recent hours, the security situation in Hatay province has apparently changed,” said ISAR spokesman Stefan Heine. “There are more and more reports of clashes between different factions. Shots have also been fired.”

German teams “are remaining in the common base camp for now as a result” and will resume their search when Turkish civil protection authorities “believe it sufficiently safe,” Heine said.

Separate from the security concerns, the Israeli military announced that it was ending its search-and-rescue efforts on Sunday but that its medical teams would remain in the country to assist in ongoing earthquake relief.

IDF search and rescue teams pose for a photo in Kahramanmaraş, Turkey, February 12, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

This is due to the diminishing likelihood of finding survivors under the rubble. Israeli rescue teams have so fare managed to rescue 19 Turkish civilians from collapsed buildings, including several children.

Even though experts say trapped people could survive for a week or more, the chances of finding survivors in the freezing temperatures are dimming.

The 7.8-magnitude tremor has claimed almost 30,000 lives in Turkey and neighboring Syria with the numbers expected to rise.

The United Hatzalah team, which set out for Turkey last Tuesday, assisted in 15 successful rescue operations, including three in which children were pulled from the rubble.

Israeli and local rescue teams work to retrieve survivors from the rubble of collapsed buildings in Kahramanmaras, on February 8, 2023, following a 7.8-magnitude earthquake that struck southeast Turkey. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

An Israeli military delegation will remain in Turkey, outside Marash, to operate a field hospital, which has already treated hundreds of people injured in the earthquakes.

The United Hatzalah team flew back to Israel on Sunday morning.

“Due to the lack of available planes, [billionaire philanthropist] Dr. Miriam Adelson donated her private jet to fly the team back to Israel,” the organization said.

AFP contributed to this report.

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