The Israeli people have opened their hearts to the survivors of the tsunami disaster in Southeast Asia, and from government agencies to school children, the country is making a significant contribution to the international relief effort.
At the same time, Southeast Asian governments have turned to Israel to request aid in areas in which Israel has acquired a reputation for excellence.
Jerusalem was asked – and agreed – to send trauma experts to help survivors of Sri Lanka cope with the tragedy, while Thailand’s government turned to Israel’s forensic experts for help in identification of thousands of victims.
Israel is currently providing aid to some countries with which it does not have diplomatic relations, such as Sri Lanka and Indonesia.
This week, an El Al plane carrying 60 tons of aid landed in Indonesia – a country which has the largest Moslem population in the world, and no ties with Israel.
Meanwhile, the Israeli Campaign for Southeast Asia Disaster – spearheaded by IsraAID, the coordinating body of Israeli and Jewish NGOs – has begun focusing efforts on feeding the survivors of the tsunami, first in Sri Lanka, and afterwards in other countries.
“Feeding people is the top priority for the coming months,” said Shachar Zahavi, founder and coordinator of IsraAID. “Relief agencies are distributing food and water, but that’s not enough. People need stations to go to for meals since they’re not in a position to prepare food for themselves. We have been asked by international organizations, including the Red Cross, to fill this niche,” he told ISRAEL21c.
According to Zahavi, the first step was the opening this week of a center for nutritional aid in Sri Lanka in coordination with Israel’s Foreign Affairs Ministry.
The center, which will also include a first aid clinic, has a kitchen donated by an Israeli company and volunteers provided by the humanitarian arm of the kibbutz movement and Magen David Adom (MDA), Israel’s rescue organization.
MDA, in cooperation with the International Red Cross and Red Crescent, have dispatched additional urgent medical supplies to hospitals in Colombo, including 4,080 vials of critically needed serum albumin valued at over $100,000. Albumin is a protein produced from blood plasma for use in treating trauma victims and patients suffering from malnourishment and another diseases. The organization has also assembled and equipped a self-standing field clinic for the disaster zone.
A 70-ton shipment from Israel arrived in Sri Lanka from the Israeli charity organization Coah Latet Meir Panim, transporting 250,000 water-purifying tablets, 1,000 water containers, medical equipment and medication. According to Sri Lankan sources, Latet provided the largest aid thus far from any civilian organization.
The Israeli team that left for Sri Lanka this week included 14 medical and logistical personnel. They will be working in the southern city of Matara and laying the groundwork for future Israeli and Jewish emergency medical and feeding projects in the field.
The team will be bringing pharmaceuticals, kitchen supplies and tents. The field clinic they are setting up will offer locals medical assistance with an emphasis on pediatrics and infectious diseases. Alongside the clinic, three large kitchens will be erected offering nutritious meals to thousands of people left homeless.
Israelis came out in full force for a three-day nationwide campaign called ‘One World’ at the nation’s supermarkets to collect food to be sent to the survivors. The mobilization was organized by the MDA with backing from its American support organization ARMDI, American Red Magen David for Israel.
Working closely with the International Red Cross and Red Crescent, more than 4,000 MDA workers and volunteers stood outside supermarkets and shopping malls collecting the food.
“The response in Israel of individuals, organizations, companies, schools and kindergartens to the “One World” food collection drive launched by MDA early this week was of unprecedented scope,” said Israeli Magen David Adom’s International Director, Mr. Yoni Yagodovsky.
“The people of Israel proved that its humanitarian capacity to disasters stands strong, and that it is geared to offer aid even if disaster strikes thousands of miles away from Israel.”
The 80-ton cargo will be delivered by phases; the first container left Haifa Port over the weekend and the second container is being sent this week, according to the MDA.
“MDA is known to every Israeli for being there to save lives during times of emergency,” said an ARMDI representative in New York City, “The impulse to provide some relief to the victims of this horrible tragedy gripped the Israeli public, and MDA was able to translate those feelings into instant tangible assistance.”
Zahavi notes that IsraAID is in close contact with various international Jewish humanitarian organizations in an effort to pool their resources to help victims of the tsunami.
In one such program, Israeli schools will twin with Jewish schools worldwide, matching dollar for dollar contributions to be sent to help victims of Southeast Asia. Zahavi said that several schools, particularly in Canada, have already contacted IsraAID to take part in the joint aid program.
In one of many grassroots initiatives in Israel, children in an after-school program in the city of Modi’in – about halfway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv – collected cuddly stuffed animals and dolls to send to the children in Southeast Asia.
“The children thought about what helps them feel better when they are sad, sick, or lonely and they came up with the idea of a soft warm fuzzy with which to cuddle,” Sandra Apperman, who runs the after-school program for children aged 3 to 8 in this town in central Israel, told ISRAEL21c.
“The children hope that this may help ease some of the pain, fear, and sadness of the child victims. It’s our one small gesture.”
The donated animals and dolls were shipped to Southeast Asia this week.
In response to a request by Bangkok, Israel has sent a mission of 19 forensic experts to Thailand, according to Brig. Gen. Dr. Azi Zadok, head of the division of identification and forensic science of the Israel National Police.
After four years of identifying the remains of Israelis killed in suicide bomb attacks, Israeli DNA experts are some of the most experienced in the world. The Israeli delegation, which includes two forensic pathologists, a forensic anthropologist, investigators and a dentist, is one of more than 15 delegations in the disaster region still taking samples from the bodies.
According to Zadok, an Israeli proposal to establish an international DNA database raises the possibility that foreign nationals killed in the tsunami disaster may yet be identified.
“There is no possibility to identify [them] unless there is an international effort using DNA as a means of identification,” Zadok told CNS News. “Our delegation raised the proposition for a DNA database. All bodies [would be] sampled. All nations [would] contribute DNA of family members. Our initiative was accepted by all nations,” Zadok added.
The Israel Police criminal identification team sent to the region, included members of ZAKA (a Hebrew acronym for Disaster Victims Identification), a volunteer organization widely considered to be the most experienced and professional in identifying corpses
“We are trying to identify people by matching photos taken of bodies and those sent by desperate relatives,” Zaka head Yehuda Meshi-Zahav told The Jerusalem Post. “It will take months to match dental records, fingerprints and DNA samples, long after the bodies are buried or cremated by the Thai authorities.”
Ordinarily used to being the first on the scene at terror attacks in Israel, the volunteers have become the experts in Sri Lanka and are sought for advice and help. Other forensic teams have dubbed the group “the team that sleeps with the dead” because they toil nearly 24 hours a day at Buddhist pagodas transformed into morgues.
“When we are getting ready to leave at 3 a.m., we’re the only ones that are still with the dead,” Meshi-Zahav told The Boston Globe.
In one case, they examined 300 bodies to find a victim who was missing a toenail, but were unsuccessful.
“In all this pain of the families, you see a family that has gotten a confirmed identification and been able to bring back their loved one. You see the relief. There’s no greater feeling than that,” he said.
Israeli technology is also being used for vital efforts to search for victims and survivors in Asia.
The Indian military has been using Israeli-made drones around the clock to search for victims and survivors of the tsunami tidal waves that swept their coast last week.
The Indian Defense Ministry said that the drones were sent on reconnaissance missions over the Andaman and Nicobar islands.
“We are operating the UAVs [unmanned aerial vehicles] from the naval base at Kochi for aerial reconnaissance. They send back pictures even as they fly. On spotting distressed people, we immediately rush helicopters to the spot for rescue operations,” one senior Indian officer was quoted as telling India Times. “We are utilizing UAV’s to find bodies deeply buried in jungles and urban areas,” the official added.
Another Israeli company – Patus Ltd. – has donated thousands of its OdorScreen products to counter the crippling odors at the site of the wreckage. As the pervasive stench of death and decay confronts an army of Tsunami disaster workers, OdorScreen, an Olfactory Perception Altering Gel Compound applied under the nose, works by modifying smells to the user for up to two hours, enabling those working in close proximity to the death and destruction to work faster and more effectively in the tropical heat.
Every current report from the devastated areas emphasizes the awful problem of the aftermath?s smell as a major obstacle in conducting rescue and recovery operations. OdorScreen was first introduced and successfully field tested in Israel for assisting rescue personnel cope with smells such as burnt and decomposing flesh and tissue due to terrorist attacks,” stated Patus CEO Guy Hirsch. “OdorScreen will be made available by the Israel Foreign Ministry delegations to national and international agencies engaged in relief operations such as the Red Cross, World Health Organization and the United Nations.”
Dr. Efraim Laor, chairman of Fast Israeli Rescue and Search Team (F.I.R.S.T.) headed a search and rescue mission to Tamil Nadu, India. Laor is also chairman of the national steering committee for earthquakes in Israel. F.I.R.S.T. has conducted over 2,800 search and rescue operations in Israel and around the world, including Turkey, India, Mexico, El Salvador, Greece, Armenia and New Guinea.
Prime Minister Ariel Sharon praised the Israeli public’s response to the disaster in Southeast Asia, saying it “reminded us what mutual assistance is.” Sharon extolled the thousands of families across the country who came to the centers collecting donations for disaster victims.
“An entire country followed and is still following the search for its missing citizens,” Sharon said. He expressed appreciation for the work of the Foreign Ministry, the Israel Defense Forces, police, El Al airlines, Zaka volunteer rescue service and others. “Their work in Israel and in the disaster zone was an example that proves Israel is a country that does not abandon its missing, sparing no effort to locate and bring them home,” Sharon said.
Among the groups and supporters taking part in the Israel Campaign For South East Asia Disaster Relief – most of them under the umbrella of IsraAID – are: American Jewish Committee; B’nai Brith International; Magen David Adom; Yad Sarah; Hadassah; Council for Israeli International Businesses; National Youth Movements; ORT; Naamat; Ve’ahavta; Meir Panim; The National Food Bank Organization; Lions Club and other non-governmental groups in Israel and around the world.
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