Israeli doctors were among the first foreign medical personnel to reach Sri Lanka in the aftermath of Sunday's devastating tsunami that left thousands dead in that country alone.
"We got a phone call that we were needed, and three hours later we were at the airport," said Prof. Avi Rivkind, head of both the Department of Surgery and Trauma Unit at Hadassah University Hospital, Ein Karem in Jerusalem.
Rivkind flew to the battered country on Sunday night, along with three other Hadassah physicians, who specialize in rescue operations, trauma and pediatrics.
Israel had also mobilized some 150 army doctors and rescue and relief teams who were planning to set up a field hospital in Sri Lanka. The Sri Lankan government, however, declined that offer of help, leading Israel to reduce the scope of its planned humanitarian mission.
Instead the government sent a small number of Israel Defense Forces personnel to accompany an 82-ton planeload of relief supplies, including medicine, water, food, blankets, tents, nylon sheeting and electric generators. A plane that left overnight Tuesday to Sri Lanka contained 10,000 blankets, 3,680 liters of mineral water, 12 tons of food, 17.5 tons of baby food and over nine tons of medicine.
In Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital, Rivkind told Israeli television that he had been asked by the Sri Lankan government to visit the hard-hit southern region of the country, and evaluate the medical and humanitarian needs.
"We're here to identify problems and offer a hand any way we can," he said. "We will try to use our broad experience in dealing with terror attacks and rescuing masses to help in this disaster as well," Rivkind told Ha'aretz.
Another Israeli medical mission -- this one to Thailand -- was dispatched by the Ministry of Health on Monday, and headed by its associate director-general Boaz Lev.
"We were asked to come by the government of Thailand," Lev told Israeli television, "and we were warmly welcomed. We'll stay here as long as we're needed," he said.
The IDF has also offered to send India food and medical supplies as well as a search-and-rescue team from the Home Front Command.
Israel's many non-governmental humanitarian organizations have also stepped in to help.
The Israeli humanitarian aid organization LaTet ("To Give") sent a jumbo plane to Sri Lanka with 18 tons of equipment -- at the request of Sri Lanka. The organization is also sending an aid delegation to Thailand.
Magen David Adom, Israel's emergency medical service, is sending medical personnel and relief aid to Sri Lanka in coordination with the Red Cross.
Dr. Efraim Laor, chairman of Fast Israeli Rescue and Search Team (F.I.R.S.T.) is heading 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.
IsraAID, the Israel forum for international humanitarian aid, is coordinating efforts of many of the Israeli and Jewish relief organizations, including Magen David Adom and F.I.R.S.T. as well as the American Jewish Committee, B'nai B'rith International; Ve'ahavta: The Canadian Jewish Humanitarian and Relief Committee; The National Council for Voluntarism in Israel and others.
Israel has a long history of providing emergency aid to disaster-hit areas of the world, dating back to 1953 -- just five years after independence -- when the nascent state sent navy personnel to help Greece following a severe earthquake. Since then, Israeli medical, army and humanitarian aid personnel have become prominent partners in virtually all international relief efforts.
The National Council for Voluntarism in Israel has opened a crisis fund to help send more Israeli relief teams to assist victims in South East Asia.
**The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) has set up a special emergency mailbox to collect funds for relief efforts following Sunday's earthquake and subsequent tidal waves in South Asia. For information on how to contribute to the emergency mailbox, click here
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