Israeli aid group to observe historic Nepalese election

Twenty-five Israelis and Diaspora Jews, members of the Tevel B'Tzedek humanitarian aid organization, will join 1,000 international election monitors in Nepal this week as observers of the historic vote that is expected to turn the Himalayan kingdom into a democratic country. The Israel-based Tevel B'Tzedek has been working in Nepal for a year on projects dealing with health, women's issues, sustainable development and community empowerment. One of the poorest nations on Earth, the land-locked country of some 29 million inhabitants emerged in late 2006 from a decade-long civil war that claimed the lives of some 13,000 Nepalese. "It's very exciting to be part of this," says Michalya Schonwald, the group's deputy international director. The organization's participation in the election-monitoring is part of "a new relationship developing between Israel and Nepal, and it shows also the sort of relationship we've been building on the ground with the people." That relationship was underscored on Monday when the country's Prime Minister Girija Prasad Koirala hosted Ambassador Dan Stav and Tevel B'Tzedek director Rabbi Micha Odenheimer in his home to thank them for the Israeli participation in the 1,000-strong group of international observers. The Thursday elections are viewed both inside and outside the country as one of the dramatic developments in the country's history. The 601 members of the Constituent Assembly who will be chosen this week are expected to formulate a democratic constitution and, if some groups have their way, may vote to dissolve Nepal's centuries-old monarchy. To ensure calm, tens of thousands of police officers were mobilized nationwide this week while authorities banned the production and sale of alcohol ahead of the vote. The Tevel B'Tzedek team includes 18 Israelis and seven Jewish participants from England, the US and Canada. Their ages range from 21 to 64, their professions from education to law to psychology. The team, which is operating in coordination with the Israeli Embassy in the capital Kathmandu, will be sent to the sensitive Cherikot district some six hours' drive from the capital - an area that has seen clashes between political groups in recent years. The team has received training from the local election committee and from other election observers, including the delegation from Muslim Bangladesh. Tevel B'Tzedek brings mostly post-army Israelis to four-month service and education programs in Kathmandu, where they work on social and environmental issues alongside a handful of Diaspora Jews. The organization is seen by many in the Jewish world as a pilot project for worldwide Jewish humanitarian aid. It plans to expand its operations to Ethiopia in 2009 alongside the American Jewish World Service.