Israel was among the first countries this week to deliver emergency aid to Guatemala following the deadly eruption of a volcano on Sunday that left at least 75 people dead and almost 200 still missing as of Wednesday.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry said on Monday that medicine, food, and blankets were delivered through its embassy in Guatemala. On Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with Guatemalan President Jimmy Morales to covey his condolences, the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement, and offer medical and logistical assistance from Israel, ordering that a specialist medical team prepare for departure. A delegation from the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Israeli Health Ministry, the National Security Council and Magen David Adom comprised of nurses, doctors, and paramedics, set off for Guatemala on Thursday morning.
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The Israeli humanitarian organization IsraAID also joined in the efforts, announcing on Monday that it was sending an emergency response team to distribute relief and conduct a comprehensive needs assessment. Its team arrived in Guatemala on Wednesday, visiting temporary shelters and distributing hygiene kits to evacuated families.
The Volcan de Fuego (“volcano of fire”) in southwest Guatemala erupted on Sunday, sending hot lava down the mountain’s flank into nearby villages and spewing ash. Eighteen people were initially declared dead but that number increased by Monday morning, with authorities fearing a further rise in the death toll. The volcano exploded again on Tuesday, and by Wednesday, the number of people killed reached 75, with 192 reported missing, according to Guatemalan authorities.
The country’s disaster relief agency, CONRED (Coordinadora Nacional para la Reducción de Desastres), said thick clouds of smoke reached nearly six miles (10 kms) into the air in the initial explosion on Sunday. The explosion also led to the formation of pyroclastic flows (clouds with a mix of ash, rock and volcanic gases) which can be much more dangerous than lava and which were threatening nearby villagers, according to Guatemala’s National Institute of Seismology, Vulcanology, Meteorology and Hydrology (Insivumeh).
The Volcan de Fuego is one of the most active volcanoes in the world and is located some 25 miles (40 kilometers) from Guatemala City.
Praying for Guatemala 🇬🇹
— Hananya Naftali (@HananyaNaftali) June 4, 2018
“We follow with worry the eruption of the Fuego volcano in Guatemala. Our hearts go to the victims and their families. From Israel we extend solidarity and friendship,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nachshon on Twitter.
Israel’s Ambassador to Guatemala Matty Cohen wrote in Spanish on Twitter on Monday that on behalf of the Israeli government, he was expressing “solidarity with the people and Government of Guatemala” following the deadly volcano eruption. “My condolences to the families of the victims. May God bless Guatemala,” he said.
CONRED said that more than 3,000 people have been evacuated and assessed that the eruption will ultimately affect more than 2 million people, CNN reported. CONRED director Sergio Cabañas told a local radio station that an entire village was feared buried.
“Unfortunately El Rodeo was buried and we haven’t been able to reach the La Libertad village because of the lava and maybe there are people that died there too,” he said, according to the BBC.
#PNCProtegerYServir Elementos de nuestra Policía Nacional Civil continúan en la búsqueda y rescate de personas que han resultado damnificadas por el #VolcánDeFuego en la aldea El Rodeo en Escuintla. Hasta el momento han rescatado a niños y adultos pic.twitter.com/JxOdkl0xih
— PNC Guatemala (@PNCdeGuatemala) June 4, 2018
Authorities were still conducting search and rescue operations which were suspended on Tuesday when the second explosion occurred.
Harrowing images and videos of the initial volcano eruption and its aftermath were circulating on social media, some showing billowing smoke and entire areas covered in ash. One survivor described her escape in a video released by CONRED.
“Not everyone escaped, I think they were buried,” Consuelo Hernandez, covered in ash said in the clip, released to the media. “We saw the lava was pouring through the corn fields and we ran toward a hill.”
Morales declared three days of national mourning following the disaster.
Israeli-Guatemalan ties have grown increasingly close in recent years. Last month, Guatemala followed the United States’ lead and became the second country in the world to move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, Israel’s capital whose eastern part is also claimed by the Palestinians as a capital for any future state.
Netanyahu and his wife Sara attended the ceremony for the opening of Guatemala’s embassy last month, with the Israeli premier hailing “the spirit of friendship and a common bond” between the two countries and thanking Morales for the move, considered highly controversial by the international community.
Israel has routinely sent relief and humanitarian missions across the world and is often the first or among the first to respond to crises and natural disasters.
In January, an Israeli medical team set off for the Eastern African nation of Zambia where a deadly cholera outbreak was wreaking havoc. The Israeli team was the first to respond to the medical crisis.
Israeli teams were on the ground in recent years leading relief missions in a number of disaster-struck areas including Mexico in September 2017, following a massive earthquake that left over 300 people dead, Puerto Rico during the same period following a hurricane, Nepal in 2015 after a devastating quake killed over 9,000 people, the Philippines following a typhoon in 2013 that killed over 6,000, and Haiti in 2010 following a catastrophic earthquake that killed over 100,000 and as many as 300,000, according to some estimates.
NOTE: This article was edited to reflect the rising death toll in Guatemala and to detail Netanyahu’s announcement of further aid, as well as IsraAID’s intervention.