Israel working to rescue 68 trapped hikers in Nepal

Five planes head to Nepal to join international relief effort; 50 Israelis still unaccounted for, as death toll approaches 4,000.

Magen David Adom rescue team heads to Nepal‏. (photo credit: MDA)
Magen David Adom rescue team heads to Nepal‏.
(photo credit: MDA)
Five Israeli airplanes, including two jumbo jets, flew to Nepal on Monday to bring home survivors of Saturday’s devastating earthquake and to join the international relief effort to rescue people from the rubble.
Meanwhile, the Foreign Ministry has located 200 Israelis, leaving only 50 who remain unaccounted for two days after the quake first hit. But concern has grown for 68 Israelis trapped in areas heavily impacted by the earthquake, which has already killed at least 4,000.
In many cases, the Israeli trekkers are in locations where all roads are blocked and they can be reached only by helicopters. Some have sent messages to their families begging for help and warning that they are almost out of food.
In the past two days, most helicopters in the country have been in the hands of the Nepalese government, which have not made them available to rescue the stranded Israelis. Among the alternative options under consideration was bringing helicopters into Nepal in parts or purchasing some from nearby India.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon told The Jerusalem Post on Monday night that Israel had managed to secure a number of helicopters, but would not explain how it had acquired them.
“We found helicopters,” he said, as he explained that they had even flown out to the area where the trekkers were, but bad weather forced them to turn around without finishing their mission.
“We will not give up. We will use those helicopters to the fullest extent,” he said.
Another Foreign Ministry spokesman, Paul Hirschson, added that in one instance four-by-four vehicles had been sent to find nine of the Israelis.
In Jerusalem, Foreign Ministry director-general Nissim Ben-Shitrit met with family members of the trekkers and assured them the country would leave no stone unturned to rescue them.
“We are working day and night. We are putting all our resources into this. We have spent millions of shekels [to help those in Nepal],” he said.
Sharon Shavit, whose daughter Shahar is among those in danger, told reporters after the meeting, “We know that the state is doing things,” but the test of those efforts will be in the results. She added that, given the assistance Israel is offering Nepal, it could spare a few helicopters.
Aside from the Foreign Ministry efforts, insurance companies with representatives on the ground in Nepal have also worked to bring the trekkers to safety.
On Monday, Harel Insurance Company managed to sway a helicopter pilot who was in between flights to pick up four Israeli trekkers in the Mount Everest area and bring them to the nearby town of Lukla.
“He was in the service of the state and we caught him in at the right moment,” Harel spokeswoman Miri Gefen said.
The Foreign Ministry estimates that at the time of the earthquake, there were 650 Israelis in Nepal. Some 250 of them are in Kathmandu, where they have sought shelter in the yards of the Chabad House and the Israeli Embassy.
On Monday morning, Chabad House emissaries Rabbi Chezki and Chani Lifshitz posted photos of earthquake refugees huddled together in sleeping bags, describing how their home is filling with people day by day. Among those pictured in the photos was Chani, cuddled together with her own children under a blanket on the floor.
“Slowly the rumor is spreading that at the Chabad House there is a shelter for the needy, and the place is filling with other men, women and children in addition to Israelis,” they wrote at 7:15 a.m. local time. “The main challenge now is for everyone to have hot food, because the basics like flour, rice, eggs, etc. are diminishing.”
The Lifshitzes stressed t hat they are still making every effort to get in contact with Israelis all around Nepal, and confirmed that there are still a few dozen with whom contact has been lost.
“Communications here are so poor that the challenge is enormous,” they said. “We are able to communicate through a generator that barely works.”
Generators and a field hospital to treat wounded are among the 95 tons of equipment that Israel flew on its jumbo jets in a mission jointly organized by the Foreign Ministry and the Home Front Command. One of the jets is to fly back on Tuesday to bring home survivors as well as some 17 babies born to surrogate Nepalese mothers.
Three of the babies landed in Israel early Monday morning on a small IAF plane, followed by five more who landed in Sde Dov Airport on a Magen David Adom flight after it brought paramedics and other medical personnel to Nepal.
In Kathmandu, sick and wounded people were lying out in the open, unable to find beds in the devastated city’s hospitals. Surgeons set up an operating theater inside a tent in the grounds of Kathmandu Medical College.
Across the capital and beyond, exhausted families laid mattresses out on streets and erected tents to shelter from rain. People lined up for water dispensed from trucks, while the few stores still open had next to nothing on their shelves.
Humanitarian agencies said materials such as plastic sheets, dry food rations, clean water and blankets were being dispatched to affected populations in the city and outside. Some relief supplies also began to trickle into the capital, a witness said. Some portable toilets had been set up and food was being provided by local aid agencies. A few United Nations vehicles were seen with medical equipment.
Many of Kathmandu’s 1 million residents have slept in the open since Saturday, either because their homes were flattened or they were terrified that aftershocks would bring them crashing down. A senior Interior Ministry official said authorities had not been able to establish contact with some of the worst affected areas in the mountainous nation, and that the death toll could reach 5,000.
On Monday, thousands streamed out of the city. Roads leading from Kathmandu were jammed with people, some carrying babies, trying to climb onto buses or hitch rides aboard cars and trucks to the plains. Long lines had formed at the airport.
“We are escaping,” said Krishna Muktari, who runs a small grocery store in Kathmandu, standing at a road intersection.
Meanwhile, the extent of the disaster was only just emerging as reports of devastation began to come in from other parts of the country. High in the Himalayas, hundreds of climbers were staying put at Mount Everest base camp, where a huge avalanche after the earthquake killed 17 people in the single worst disaster to hit the world’s highest mountain. Rescue teams, helped by clear weather, used helicopters to airlift scores of people stranded at higher altitudes, two at a time.
Survivors spoke of trying to stay flat on the ground while the tremors shook the forested mountains. Some were stuck for hours afterwards, unable to move because of injuries. “There is nobody helping people in the villages. People are dying where they are,” said A. B. Gurung, a Nepalese soldier who was waiting in Dhading district for an Indian helicopter that had gone to his village, Darkha.
But as Nepalis prepared to spend a third night outside, anger emerged at the slow pace of recovery. Ana Bharat, a student in Kathmandu, said he and 23 relatives had set up a tent in the garden behind the Home Ministry.
“They haven’t given us any trouble,” he said, referring to civil servants and officials in buildings all around, “but they haven’t done anything for us either.”
The United Nations Children’s Fund said nearly 1 million children in Nepal were severely affected by the quake, and warned of waterborne and infectious diseases.
In the ancient temple town of Bhaktapur, east of Kathmandu, many residents were living in tents in a school compound after centuries- old buildings collapsed or developed huge cracks.
“We have become refugees,” said Sarga Dhaoubadel, a management student whose ancestors had built her Bhaktapur family home over 400 years ago. They were subsisting on instant noodles and fruit, she said.
“No one from the government has come to offer us even a glass of water,” she said. “Nobody has come to even check our health. We are totally on our own here. All we can hope is that the aftershocks stop and we can try and get back home.”
Several countries sent aid and personnel to Nepal. India sent helicopters, medical supplies and members of its National Disaster Response Force. China sent a 60-strong emergency team. Pakistan’s army said it was sending four C-130 aircraft with a 30-bed hospital, search and rescue teams and relief supplies.
A Pentagon spokesman said a US military aircraft with 70 personnel left the United States on Sunday and was due in Kathmandu on Monday. Australia, Britain and New Zealand said they were sending specialist urban search-and-rescue teams to Kathmandu at Nepal’s request.

Reuters contributed to this report.

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