Interview'In natural disasters, politics doesn't play a role'

Weeks after filling long-empty post, Israeli envoy oversees quake aid to Turkey

Irit Lillian, the first ambassador to Ankara since 2018, credits Jerusalem for connecting quickly with Turkish leaders, says coordination is excellent

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Israel's ambassador in Turkey, Irit Lillian (Foreign Ministry)
Israel's ambassador in Turkey, Irit Lillian (Foreign Ministry)

As Israeli relief delegations began their work in earthquake-ravaged areas of Turkey, Israel’s ambassador to Ankara said that newly restored ties between the two countries smoothed the way for the rapid deployment of aid.

“The Israeli political system was very much engaged in getting in touch with their Turkish counterparts and with the local authorities,” Irit Lillian told The Times of Israel on Tuesday evening.

Lillian is overseeing Israel’s aid efforts in the wake of Monday’s earthquakes that killed thousands in Turkey and Syria.

“We have contacts with all levels of the Turkish authorities,” said Lillian, speaking by phone from Ankara.

Hours after the earthquake hit, President Isaac Herzog called Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Foreign Minister Eli Cohen spoke to his Turkish counterpart, Mevlüt Çavuşoğlu.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant called Turkey’s Gen. Hulusi Akar, telling him “that Israeli security forces are on standby and ready to help the Turkish nation with any required life-saving efforts.”

Russian rescue personnel search for survivors and victims under the rubble of a collapsed building in the town of Jableh in Syria’s northwestern province of Latakia following an earthquake, on February 7, 2023. (Photo by AFP)

In August of last year, Israel and Turkey announced a full renewal of diplomatic ties. More than four years before, Turkey recalled its ambassador and asked the Israeli envoy to leave in protest of Israel’s response to rioting on the Gaza border, in which dozens of Palestinians were killed.

Facing hardening diplomatic isolation and economic woes, Erdogan began to publicly display an openness to rapprochement in December 2020.

Over the ensuing two years, the sides moved cautiously closer, a process that culminated in Lillian presenting her credentials in late December and Turkey’s Sakir Ozkan Torunlar taking up his post in Tel Aviv two weeks later.

Sakir Ozkan Torunlar (R), Turkey’s ambassador to Israel, delivers his etter of credence to President Isaac Herzog, January 11, 2023 (Haim Zach/GPO)

But, said Lillian, no one is thinking about the state of bilateral relations right now: “In times of natural disasters, politics doesn’t play a role.

“Everyone is targeted toward one major goal, and that is saving lives.”

Israel is already working toward that goal. A delegation of IDF medical and logistics corps troops was set to depart for Turkey Wednesday morning to establish a field hospital. The army said the delegation would comprise some 230 people, including search and rescue experts, military medics, and Health Ministry doctors, nurses, and paramedics.

The delegation will also assist Home Front Command search and rescue teams, which began operating in southeastern Turkey. The IDF dispatched an initial delegation on Monday evening, followed by a larger 150-person one early Tuesday morning.

As of Wednesday morning, IDF personnel had rescued four people.

“It’s a vast region of several million people,” explained Lillian, stressing that “time is very crucial.”

“The first thing Turkey was asking for was rescue equipment, search dogs, specialists to pull people out of debris,” she said.

Ankara is also asking for blankets and clothing to help citizens cope with the winter weather.

Turkish authorities are extremely capable and experienced, said Lillian, having dealt with earthquakes and other natural disasters in the past. They know how to request and immediately receive international aid, and have shut down roads to affected areas to enable emergency crews to travel quickly.

A firefighting plane flies over the wildfires in Haifa, trying to put them out, Thursday, Nov. 24, 2016.(AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Israel has provided life-saving assistance to Turkey in the past. After the 1999 Izmit earthquake, and IDF delegation deployed a field hospital that rescued 12, performed 40 operations, and even delivered 15 babies.

Turkey has also responded when Israel was in need. In 2016, as Israel was battling an outbreak of wildfires, Turkey sent a firefighting plane to assist in the effort.

“It’s natural to help,” said Lillian. “We are all human beings. It’s not a matter of borders.”

Lillian is remaining in Ankara to coordinate Israel’s relief efforts with Turkish officials in the capital. She sent the deputy chief of mission Nadav Markman to the disaster area to oversee activities on the ground.

The ambassador said she did not feel the first 7.8 earthquake, but did feel the second, a 7.5 magnitude quake whose epicenter was further north.  Embassy staff was working at the time, and had to leave the office — located in a high rise — quickly.

No local staff were injured in the earthquake, said Lillian, but many have family members who have been affected. “You can really feel the vibes. People are shocked and sad.”

Emanuel Fabian contributed to this report.

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