United Hatzalah puts early end to Turkey quake relief operation amid safety concerns

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 says.

United Hatzalah sent a group of some 40 volunteers, mostly medical professionals, who assisted in the rescue efforts in southern Turkey, specifically in Marash, one of the cities hit hardest by last week’s earthquakes. The delegation was scheduled to return after 10 days, but decided to come back to Israel early because of a “concrete and immediate threat.”

A spokesperson for the organization says there were two main concerns driving the decision: proximity to the Syrian border and the city of Gaziantep, which has seen Islamic State activity over the years, and growing unrest among Turkish citizens over the government’s poor response to the earthquake.

“We knew that there was a certain level of risk in sending our team to this area of Turkey, which is close to the Syrian border, but we took the necessary steps in order to mitigate the threat for the sake of our lifesaving mission. Unfortunately, we have just received intelligence of a concrete and immediate threat on the Israeli delegation and we have to put the security of our personnel first,” says Dovi Maisel, the vice president of operations for the organization.

A United Hatzalah spokesperson says residents of Marash and the surrounding area, where upwards of 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 says.

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