February 24, 2023

Why was Israel eager to help save lives in Turkey? - opinion

By Barbara Sofer

Dr. Itai Basel reaches for his cellphone to show me photos. Not of his own three beautiful children or the very sick children he takes care of in the intensive care unit in Hadassah Mount Scopus. These are the children his team pulled out of the rubble in Turkey.

He drinks a glass of water because his throat and airways are still full of the dust of the collapsed apartment buildings and the soot of burning refuse from heating campfires.

In his home outside of Jerusalem in Mevaseret, Basel didn’t feel aftershocks the night the earthquakes hit Turkey and Syria. He first heard about the disaster on the 7 a.m. news on his car radio, driving to work on Thursday, February 6. Basel pulled over on Golda Meir Boulevard and phoned his army unit. In recent years, he had switched from his Air Force reserve to a military search and rescue unit. “I wanted to get my name in,” he said. “I knew that many Israelis would want to go to help.”His second phone call was to his wife, Marina, an environmental consultant. He wouldn’t go if she objected.

“First, she said yes. Then she thought about the possible danger and said no. Finally, she said yes again because I’m a doctor and that’s what we do – try to save lives.”

In the meantime, United Hatzalah of Israel, the volunteer rescue organization of first responders, together with the Israel Rescue Team, decided to send a team to Turkey. There would be experienced volunteers from their search and rescue units, as well as doctors, nurses and medics.

In addition to working for Maccabi Healthcare Services and Hadassah-University Medical Center, Basel is a year-round volunteer for United Hatzalah. Often, in the middle of the night, he’s called to treat children in dire condition.

Many of those trapped underground in Turkey were children.

“Count me in,” Basel told his unit.

Why are Israelis eager to help, despite the dangers of aftershocks, icy terrain and recent warnings about terrorism in Turkey?

“We have values that we take for granted that come from the Bible,” Basel said. ”The commandments to release your indentured servant after seven years, not to be cruel to animals, not to stand by when someone is in need all come from the same place,” he said. “You always remember the trials our people went through. A lot of people are cynical, but I make it a value to resist cynicism.”

And, in his personal background: His mother’s family perished in the Holocaust. His father, also a physician, served in Unit 669, the IDF’s heliborne combat search and rescue extraction unit.

Basel’s Air Force service focused on electronic instrumentation. He’s been programming computers since he was 11, and during medical school he worked in hi-tech. He left that lucrative job to become a professional dancer in the Batsheva Dance Ensemble. He’s a skilled carpenter, so he also volunteers for a Mevaseret team that does home repairs for needy families.

SOON BASEL was flying to the epicenter of the two consecutive earthquakes in Kahramanmaras (Marash) in southeast Turkey. The Hatzalah team was among the first to arrive. The plane landed next to an Iranian aircraft. They were close to the Syrian border, where thousands of Syrian refugees live, and close to the Turkish city of Gaziantep, which has seen Islamic State activity over the last year.

Before them was a sight that looked like a dystopian horror movie. Where to begin?
“It’s not as if the area is abandoned,” he said. “There are many people milling around, calling to us, ‘I hear something, please come and listen.’”

Knowing they could excavate only a small fraction of the buildings, they needed to find signs of life. “We followed every report of someone hearing voices, tapping or noise. But if we got there and we couldn’t hear anything, and if the rescue dogs showed no interest, we couldn’t begin digging. We’d explain that we’d return if they heard sounds again. People understood this.”

Once, they heeded pleas from townspeople and went back for a third time to the same site. That time, they too heard noises. They rescued a brother and sister.

One hundred and sixteen hours after the quake, the team was still pulling out surviving children.

Not a certified digger, Basel did ancillary jobs and made suggestions while waiting for the extraction.

“It’s hard not to help out, so I did what I was allowed to,” he said. He helped clear rubble and drew up building maps based on the descriptions of residents and household findings.

Once a building is targeted for a rescue effort, Israeli engineers inspect the site to make sure it’s relatively safe. Certain buildings, said Basel, collapsed like pancakes. Others fell on an angle, with a chance of creating life-sustaining air pockets. “In Israel, you can quickly get the blueprint for every apartment so you can make educated guesses about where to find people. Not in Turkey. We had to rely on information from neighbors.”

The medical care needed also had unknowns. A seven-year-old girl was trapped so that only the upper part of her body was exposed. “We wanted to give her the right dose for her pain, but in such a situation her own body is producing adrenalin, and a painkiller can dampen its effectiveness.”

The extraction process itself is very dangerous. After hours and days of digging, that exhilarating moment when you finally lift off the slab of concrete or unearth the buried children can cause a huge shift in their response.

“It’s important for the children to see their loved ones, but you have to make sure that no one jumps in to hug a child. You have to find out if a child has any allergies. You need to hydrate and warm them, to give calcium, do ventilation, protect the heart and kidneys, carefully place the children on special gurneys for transfer to a hospital.”

Sometimes he heard himself speaking in a soft and reassuring voice in Hebrew. The children seemed to understand.

The Israeli team is excellent, said Basel, “We had a lot of success, but even if we’d had zero success, it was important for us to be there.”

United Hatzalah of Israel and the Israel Rescue Team reportedly saved 19 lives. Basel took part in eight extractions, five of them for children.

IN THE meantime, back at his home, neighbors, friends and the organizations where he works and volunteers showed up with food gifts for Marina and the children. One of the women for whom he’d repaired cupboards offered to help with childcare.

Team members continue to correspond on WhatsApp and get together to help them process the images and experiences.

Something that helps?

In his three-year-old daughter’s nursery school, all the children got down on the floor to color a giant welcome home poster to be pinned on the family’s front door. Dad listened carefully as his daughter named the nursery school artists, one by one. When his eyes teared up, this time it wasn’t from the Turkish dust.