A look at Operation Olive Branch – Israel’s Search and Rescue Efforts in the aftermath of the Turkey-Syria Earthquake

By Rolene Marks

The Talmud says that “he who saves a life, it is as if he saves the entire world”.

Over a week ago, a devastating earthquake in Turkey and Syria, with shock waves and tremors felt all the way in Israel shattered neighbourhoods and families, killing an estimated 35 000.  The United Nations estimated that the final death toll could be as high as 55 000. This is an unfathomable tragedy.

Global Response. Note the impressive size of the Israeli delegation to Turkey.

As soon as news of the devastation broke, Israel offered help. When the call goes out – and even sometimes when it does not – Israel is the first to respond. This even extends to countries who Israel has no formal diplomatic ties with, because humanity and helping your fellow man in a time of crisis trumps politics every time.

Israel to the Rescue. IDF search and rescue teams pose for a photo in Kahramanmaraş, Turkey, February 12, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israel has a long history of sending humanitarian aid. This value is woven into the fabric of our society. Just ten years after the founding of the modern State of Israel in 1948, the country adopted an official humanitarian aid agenda, providing vital relief to more than 140 countries.

Israel’s ability to mobilise and deploy quickly along with our methodology and practices is one of the reasons the country has been acknowledged by the UN as being the best in the world when it comes to search and rescue missions. This is further bolstered by our abilities to set up field hospitals to treat the wounded, which we have done in Haiti, Ukraine and many other places in the world. It is no coincidence that from Nepal to Haiti, there is always a newborn baby who has been named “Israel”!

Saving Lives in the Field. IDF medical officers treat wounded Turkish civilians at a field hospital near Kahramanmaraş, February 10, 2023. (IDF)

Bilateral relations between Israel and Turkey have been strained for the better part of a decade and it is only in the last year that this has started to thaw. As soon as news of the earthquake broke, Israel’s Foreign Minister, Eli Cohen, expressed the country’s condolences and plans were made to deploy the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) Home Front Command teams — which also included some Magen David Adom paramedics and fire and rescue service personnel. A delegation of 150 left for Turkey. They were soon joined by 250 IDF medics and troops as well as medical personnel from Sheba Hospital, Hadassah Hospital, United Hatzalah and search and rescue from Harel, an insurance company and ICL who conduct rescues around the Dead Sea area, joined along with ZAKA, Israeli members of Rescuers without Borders, NGO’s IsraAid and many more. Israel’s delegation swelled to over 450 and became the second largest on the ground to neighbouring Azerbaijan’s rescuers. Operation Olive Branch was underway. This was the 30th mission in 41 years.

Ready to Rescue. The United Hatzalah rescue delegation that was dispatched to Turkey after the country’s devastating earthquakes pose for a photograph on February 12, 2023. (United Hatzalah)

Heading up the delegation, was Col. Golan Vach, Commander of Israel’s National Rescue Unit. I had the immense privilege of meeting Col. Golan Vach when he addressed our WIZO Meeting of Representatives last month. This warm and modest soldier represents the best of Israel; and had his audience emotionally captivated as he walked us through various rescue missions, including the recent disaster in Surfside, Miami.

Col. Golan Vach, Commander of Israel’s National Rescue Unit to Turkey is seen here with the writer last month when he addressed a WIZO conference in Tel Aviv.

Israel also offered humanitarian aid to Syria (albeit through third parties). Syria does not recognize Israel and the two countries remain in a state of war. Syria’s complicated internal political issues hampered rescue efforts. Aid organisations expressed their anger and frustration that the Assad regime were not allowing much needed humanitarian aid to get to those who needed it the most.  A frustrated Syrian blogger was filmed asking Israel for help.

Syrians in Shock from Israel’s willingness to aid them during earthquake

One of the first on the ground, Israel’s team saved 19 civilians who were found still alive. They also recovered countless souls, killed by the earthquake. It is impossible to imagine what they witnessed – and what people endured, such is the magnitude of this tragedy.

In the Thick of It. Israeli and local rescue teams working at the site of a building collapse in Marash, Turkey, February 8, 2023. (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

A personal account from Dvir Dimri, volunteering with a contingent of Israelis with Rescuers without Borders recalls, “Even with what I went through in the army, and treating victims in all the terror attacks in Israel, I never experienced anything like this.”

A Turkish doctor who worked closely with the Israeli team wrote to Dimri, in a message he shared with the website

“I want to thank you on behalf of the Turkish nation. You didn’t leave us alone. From now on, I will remember you when Israel is mentioned. I love the country of Israel and the Israelis more because of you. The Turkish nation will never forget this noble act you showed. You have a very big heart, my brother.”

Operation Olive Branch brought together volunteers from many Israeli and Jewish organisations including ZAKA, an NGO rescue and recovery organization. “ZAKA volunteers from Israel and South Africa worked together, shoulder to shoulder along with IDF search and rescue soldiers,” said mission head Haim Otmazgin. “The expedition rescued 19 survivors, and after more time passed, and the chance of finding more survivors among the living became very small, the expedition achieved its goals and returned to Israel.”

From Turkey with Love. Sakir Ozkan Torunlar, Turkey’s ambassador to Israel, presents Col. (res.) Golan Vach, the head of a search and rescue delegation to the country, with a bouquet of flowers, at a ceremony at Ben Gurion Airport, February 13, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

The IDF Home Front Command team have returned to Israel. Israel’s field hospital is still operational, treating hundreds in Turkey, including Syrian refugees. Immense gratitude has been expressed from President Erdogan, from the Turkish Ambassador in Israel,  Sakir Ozkan Torunlar, and from Syrian refugees and Turkish citizens.

Search and Rescue. Israel Defense Force (IDF) teams begin operating in a bid to find survivors after the earthquake in Turkey on February 7, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

In a ceremony to welcome home the delegation, Prime Minister Netanyahu said:

“The entire people of Israel followed your rescue operation with great emotion. You went on behalf of the country and you brought great honor to the State of Israel. We saw you in action in the cold, in difficult conditions around the clock in the most sacred work a person can do — saving the lives of others.”

Continuing, Netanyahu stressed:  

“You did something else. You showed the entire world the true and beautiful face of the State of Israel: a small country with a huge soul, a country that rushes to help others around the world and in the harshest conditions, out of humanity and the highest morality. This is the true face of Israel. It is precisely at this time that your mission receives extra significance. In these stormy times, you remind all of us that we are one people, with one fate, and with one future. All of Israel is proud of you. I am proud of you. I salute you. Welcome home,”

Not all heroes wear capes – sometimes they wear the olive green of the IDF or reflective yellow and orange vests. They have saved many lives; and in turn many worlds. They do not do this for gratitude or media coverage; but to save lives. This is humanity in its purest form. We are so profoundly proud of them.

We are with You. As a symbol of solidarity with the Republic of Turkey, the municipality of Tel Aviv light its building with the Turkish flag.