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Horror in the Himalayas claims Israeli lives

Three Israelis confirmed dead, a fourth death suspected, seven injured and MDA reports today that some 50 are still missing after Thursday’s massive avalanche in Nepal. Israeli dead and injured returned today. See who died, how it all happened and what’s being done for those still missing. All but one of the missing Israelis are believed to be safe but have yet to contact their families or authorities. Read how Israel mobilised their rescue efforts…

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ANT KATZ

By ANT KATZ with JPOST, CBC, HAARETZ & ARUTZ SHEVA

The Hadassah Medical Organization sent a special rescue flight to repatriate the injured hikers, an HMO spokesman said, while an unnamed Israeli businessman also reportedly donated his private plane to fly the injured back to Israel.

The deceased are: Nadav Shoham, Agam Luria, 23, and Lt Tamar Ariel, 24. (the first Israeli dati (religious) woman to become an Israeli Air Force Combat Navigator.

 MDA - Nepal - HOME


RIGHT: One of the three Israelis to die in the avalanches caused by the Nepal blizzard this week was Tamar Ariel – pictured here with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in 2012 after completing her pilots training course.

Captain Ariel was the first Israeli dati (religious) woman to become an Israeli Air Force Combat Navigator, She hailed from the Masu’ot Yitzhak moshav in the south near Ashdod and Ashkelon. She had been trekking with a friend in the Annapurna section of the Himalayas, a route popular with backpackers in northern Nepal


 

Six of the injured Israelis suffered from various degrees of frostbite and the vision of one of the repatriated injured was impaired. Magen David Adom EMS evacuated the injured to Hadassah University Medical Centre in Jerusalem and to Sheba Medical Centre in Tel Hashomer.

The recovery team was headed by Prof Avi Rivkind, head of the Hadassah-University Medical Centre’s trauma and emergency department, and Dr Julius Golander, a paediatric cardiologist, who helped repatriate a two-week old new-born suffering from a cardiac defect, not connected to the avalanche.

 

Nepal - Nadav


LEFT: Nadav Shoham, from Mitzpe Hoshayiah, also died in the Nepalese tragedy

 


After landing in Nepal, the team evaluated the Israeli casualties in a Kathmandu Hospital and decided to evacuate seven of them. Some of the injured will require prolonged therapy and rehabilitation for frostbite.

Teams of surgeons, other physicians and support personnel are deployed at Hadassah to assist in the evaluation and care of the injured.

 

Nepal - Agam


RIGHT: Agam Luria, one of the three Israelis killed in a storm while hiking in Nepal

 


Rivkind told Israel Channel 2 that the injured Israelis were in good spirits and happy with the treatment they were receiving in Nepal.

Fourth missing woman suspected dead

Concern is also rising that another Israeli tourist may have died in the disaster: Michal Gili Chierkowsky, 43, from Givatayim.

Chierkowsky’s family told the media Saturday night that they are “praying for a miracle,” and that information regarding her fate indicates that she is trapped at 5,000 meters high along the mountain pass without communications equipment or access to rescue facilities.

 

Nepal - Annapurna South Face


LEFT: Annapurna South Face – see detailed schematic below

 


The total confirmed death toll from the blizzard that engulfed trekkers on Nepal’s popular Annapurna trail in the Himalayas had risen to 39, police and army sources said on Saturday. “We have spotted nine new bodies today,” said Govinda Pathak, police head in the district of Mustang.

“We could not retrieve them because of bad weather conditions and snowfall. I can confirm that the toll is 39 now.”

The nine victims whose bodies were spotted Saturday were most likely Nepalese porters, according to an official with the Trekking Agents Association of Nepal.

The authorities rescued 60 more people on Saturday, when the army deployed troops on a ground search, taking the total number saved to 371. Survivors of the avalanche say the storm caught them completely off guard.

Rescuers are hoping that most of those still unaccounted for, including between 39 and 50 Israelis depending on various sources, are still taking shelter in isolated mountain huts, a government official said.

Channel 2 reported that all 50 Israelis – with the exception of Charkesky – who were on the mountain have been located and brought to Kathmandu. Another 40 Israelis in Nepal have not yet contacted their families, but they are not believed to be in any danger.

MDA, however, announced this morning that “50 Israelis were still missing” although it is not clear if they were on the mountain at the time.

Catastrophic cause

Saturday was the fourth day of organised searches since snowstorms, triggered by the tail-end of a cyclone, erupted, sweeping through large parts of the Himalayas. The 39 confirmed fatalities by on Saturday night, say Nepalese police and army sources, included nineteen tourists.

Two Israeli trekkers trapped on a Himalayan pass that had been inaccessible since the blizzard struck the Annapurna mountain were rescued overnight Friday, as emergency teams continued their search for survivors.

One Israeli woman, Maya Ora, told Channel 2 a harrowing tale of walking in snow that was a meter-and-a-half high, and of seeing bodies along the trail. She spoke of one friend who was trapped, whom she helped extract from the snow.

 “We saw our friends dying in the snow,” she said.

The Israeli insurance company Harel has conducted its own rescue operation, evacuating some 60 Israeli hikers from stranded areas in the region that have been cut off from access.

MDA Delegation

Magen David Adom also sent a medical delegation headed by Dr Rafi Strugo, head of its medical branch, and senior paramedic Asi Dabilansky to Kathmandu, where they examined the Israeli injured and prepared them for their flight home. More MDA staff and equipment were later dispatched.

They said all the injured suffered serious psychological trauma and were happy to encounter experts who spoke their language, even though the local teams gave them excellent care.

READ: HOW JEWISH REPORT BROKE THE STORY THIS MORNING

Twelve local helicopters were pressed into action on Saturday to drop searchers in otherwise inaccessible spots, and Nepalese soldiers fanned out in different directions along the 240 km. route. It was the most intensive effort yet to find survivors of one of the country’s worst mountain disasters, which struck at a time of year when the weather is usually calm and clear.

Thorong La, the highest pass along the Annapurna trek, is at an altitude of 5,416 m., but the route does not require mountaineering experience. Eyewitnesses said many victims perished trying to descend the pass in freezing, whiteout conditions.

In Kathmandu, survivors recounted their brush with death during the blizzard. Munchang Lama, 35, a guide for two Israeli women, found himself marooned while he was pitching a tent for them.

“Suddenly it started raining and I took shelter between two rocks,” said Lama, who was rescued on Friday, suffering from frostbite and minor injuries. “Next morning I was not able to walk because my leg was stuck in snow,” he added. “I realized I would only be able to get out when the snow melted.”

Israelis’ supplies kept him alive for 48 hours

Lama said he was able to keep up his strength by munching on nuts, chocolates and a banana he found in the women’s bags. “This kept me alive for 48 hours,” said Lama, adding that he did not know what became of his clients.

 

MDA - Nepal - unnamed injured - pic MDA


RIGHT: Two unnamed injured Israelis returning this morning – picture by MDA

 


The government has admitted failing to issue any warning that the weather would take a sudden turn for the worse, and has promised to set up an early-warning system.

This week’s incident was the second major mountain disaster in Nepal this year after an avalanche killed 16 guides on Mount Everest, the world’s highest peak, in April.

The home ministry told officials in the five affected districts to trace missing people who could have taken shelter from the storm in hamlets, temples or other isolated spots.

At least 45 Nepalese families have approached officials in the districts of Mustang, Manang and Dolpa for help tracking down their missing family members who worked as porters and guides.

 “The problem is that any Nepali is free to start operating as a porter and they do not require a license,” said Keshav Pandey of Nepal’s Trekking Agencies Association. “According to our estimate more than 85 Nepalis are still stuck.”

Nepal is home to eight of the world’s 14 highest mountains. Income from tourism, including permit fees from trekkers, who made up more than 12% of its 800,000 tourists in 2013, accounts for 4% of its economy.

NEPAL - Annapurna South FULL 

Schematic depiction of the deadly Annapurna South Face
that claimed so many lives last week

READ: HOW JEWISH REPORT BROKE STORY THIS MORNING

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Closer ties between Zim and Israel rattles ANC

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Zimbabwe and Israel have had full diplomatic relations since 1993, but further overtures by our northern neighbour to the Jewish state could cause conflict with South Africa, particularly certain factions in the African National Congress (ANC).

According to an article by Carien du Plessis published on News24 on Wednesday, 3 February, “Zimbabwe has been seeking closer ties with Israel in the hope of securing more investment and doing away with sanctions. This move has caused unease within the ANC, which has a pro-Palestinian stance, although it’s unlikely the party will act on it.

“The ruling party [in Zimbabwe], ZANU-PF, has historically positioned itself as pro-Palestinian, but Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s latest move closer to Israel represents a change in policy direction,” Du Plessis writes.

She reports that although the head of the ANC committee on international relations, Lindiwe Zulu, said that, “We cannot interfere with the sovereign decisions of the governing party of any other government”, there have been divisions within ZANU-PF and within the ANC about the Israel matter.

“A pro-Palestine lobby within the ANC wants South Africa’s governing party to take a more hardline approach to its Zimbabwean counterpart, while the pragmatists prefer not to push this issue for diplomatic reasons,” Du Plessis says.

Darren Bergman, the shadow minister for international relations and cooperation and a member of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Parliamentary Forum Human Rights Committee, didn’t mince his words about South Africa’s response.

“The people of Zimbabwe are suffering. The internal affairs of Zimbabwe couldn’t get South Africa to act, the situation in Zimbabwe couldn’t get South Africa to act, but the relationship with Israel gets South Africa to act,” he said.

“This is a sinister situation that must make the SADC and African Union [AU] question what exactly South Africa’s situation is with regard to the Middle East,” Bergman said.

“It’s one thing to have an opinion and a position, but it’s another to keep a hard-pressed, almost spiteful stance at all times that can actually harm and injure the people and the continent. To this I would say that South Africa should show diplomatic constraint, and hold back.”

One of Mnangagwa’s recent moves to improve relations with Israel is the appointment last year of Israeli national Ronny Levi Musan as honorary consul of Zimbabwe to Israel.

The Afro-Middle East Centre reported in October 2020 that, “Musan has set plans into motion for Mnangagwa’s official visit to Israel. His activities in Zimbabwe include collaboration with Pentecostal churches to push for Christian support for Israel. Zimbabwe’s honorary consul is also pushing for Israeli businesses to invest in Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector, and he recently announced the intention to open an Israeli academy of agriculture in Zimbabwe. On the diplomatic front, Israel hopes that Mnangagwa will follow the example of his Malawian counterpart, Lazarus Chakwera, who announced plans to open an embassy in Jerusalem.”

Musan told the SA Jewish Report he had worked in Africa for the past 20 years to strengthen links between churches and the Holy Land. “About five years ago, I was invited to visit Zimbabwe which lasted about two weeks. I tried to do everything possible to connect Zimbabwe to Israel on a practical level. After the first visit, I visited Zimbabwe several more times, and met a number of ministers and church leaders, and just fell in love with the place.

“From there, it continued through my activities with the Israeli foreign ministry and the foreign ministry in Zimbabwe to promote diplomatic relations between the countries.” He was eventually appointed to this role.

“My main responsibility is to do everything possible in every field to bring knowledge and support from Israel to Zimbabwe, and vice versa. The main issue is technology in the field of agriculture, education, and innovation. These are the cornerstones that will return the crown to Zimbabwe as the ‘grain basket of Africa’.”

Local political analyst Daniel Silke says that Zimbabwe’s overtures to Israel “could well be an attempt by Zimbabwe to follow the Sudan example, in which currying favour with the United States via the channel of restoring relations with Israel allows the country to receive assistance and perhaps even escape some of the worst sanctions. But, of course, [former US] President Donald Trump is no longer in the White House. Whether this will have any traction with Joe Biden, who I think will be a lot more critical of the Zimbabwean regime, remains to be seen.”

In terms of the impact it could have on South African-Israel relations, Silke says, “Many other African countries are forging their own path in terms of relations with Israel. For President [Cyril] Ramaphosa, it’s a difficult balancing act given the demands from within his own party. But I don’t think South Africa has any leg to stand on in terms of interference with any country which wishes to forge some sort of close relationship with the Jewish state. As head of the AU, Ramaphosa is again in a tough position because of the changing dynamics across Africa, but I don’t think it’s an issue that will really get much attention.”

Rowan Polovin, the chairperson of the South African Zionist Federation, says, “We see this as a positive development, particularly for Southern Africa, which is part of the momentum that is being created by the Abraham Accords.

“Northern Africa has been very much part of the momentum. In the southern region, Malawi, which is diplomatically and geographically close to South Africa, has signalled its intention to open an embassy in Israel. If all this has an impact on South Africa’s neighbours, then South Africa will see the benefits. It’s very hard to ignore the importance of building ties with Israel, which has so many solutions for African issues, particularly water, electricity, agriculture, and security. Notwithstanding the noise that the ANC might make, ultimately it’s positive.”

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Just how successful is Israel’s vaccine push?

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Israel is reporting promising initial results from its COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the fastest in the world.

The first official findings released by the health ministry show that only 0.04% of people caught the virus a week after their second dose, and a mere 0.002% needed hospital treatment.

Clalit, the country’s largest health service organisation, has also released its preliminary data. It compared 200 000 people aged 60 and over who’ve been vaccinated with 200 000 similar unvaccinated older adults. It found that the rate of those who tested positive dropped 33% among the vaccinated 14 days after they received it. No decline was seen in the unvaccinated.

Maccabi, another healthcare organisation, saw an even larger drop. Infections decreased 60% among 430 000 people 13 to 21 days after they received the vaccine. The data also suggested the vaccine was 92% effective, close to the 95% efficacy claimed by Pfizer.

Israeli researchers are conducting more in-depth analysis, and point out that real-world effectiveness of vaccines is often lower than the efficacy seen in clinical trials due to a number of factors.

But experts warn that this data has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal so it should be viewed with some caution.

There are also various factors that could be influencing the results. The current lockdown and behaviour such as travelling and gathering less, wearing masks, and greater physical distancing might be decreasing infections.

The first people to receive the vaccine were mostly from vulnerable populations, so they are more likely to take precautions which could also skew the data.

In spite of the encouraging news, the death toll from COVID-19 continues to climb. Of the 4 816 fatalities at the time of writing, 30% occurred in January when the vaccination rollout was already in full swing. The government blames this on the more transmissible British variant of the virus, especially among children. According to Clalit, when the vaccination campaign started in late December, the new variant caused 30% to 40% of infections, whereas now that figure has doubled.

As for the South African strain, there are currently 80 detected cases in Israel, and there is concern that the vaccine isn’t as effective against this variant. A number of Israelis who previously had COVID-19 have been re-infected with the South African strain, with the most recent case identified two days ago.

Compounding the situation is the flagrant disregard by the ultra-Orthodox community, that comprises just less than 13% of the population, for lockdown rules. Since the start of the pandemic, one in five ultra-Orthodox has tested positive.

Many in the community doubt the safety of the vaccine or believe the country’s citizens are being used as guinea pigs to test its efficacy. Prominent rabbis have also said that communal prayer and study needs to overwrite lockdown concerns.

Last Sunday, 31 January, thousands of ultra-Orthodox mourners, many without masks, crowded together to attend two funerals of famous rabbis who died from coronavirus. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been criticised for not cracking down harshly enough on the community for political reasons – he needs their votes in the upcoming 23 March election.

Residents of Tel Aviv spoke to the SA Jewish Report, complaining that the actions of the ultra-Orthodox were forcing the whole country to go repeatedly into lockdown, and it wasn’t fair. It’s no surprise thus that the latest word from the government is that the current – third – nationwide lockdown may not be Israel’s last.

Many Israelis want cities and towns to once again be divided into red, orange, yellow, and green zones and scales of restrictions to be put in place accordingly. This would mean those who obey the restrictions wouldn’t have to pay the price of those who don’t.

In recent days, there’s also growing concern in some quarters in Israel that because the mass vaccination campaign is running in parallel with an active coronavirus outbreak, it could lead to an “evolutionary pressure” on the virus in which it would ultimately become immune to vaccination. Doctors are suggesting that in future, people will need to take an annual anti-COVID-19 jab, much in the same way the annual flu injection is taken.

But for now, the race to innoculate everyone is on. Among the first to be injected were people aged 60 or older. More than two-thirds of this age group have already received the required two doses. Up to 200 000 people are being injected each day, and the vaccine is now available to anyone over the age of 35. High-school students aged 16 to 18 are also included in the hope that they will be able to sit for exams. It seems Netanyahu is on track to fulfil his promise of innoculating five million of the country’s nine million citizens by the end of March.

To date, just more than one in three Israelis has been inoculated – about 1.7 million of them twice. Because this is a far higher fraction than anywhere else in the world, it makes the country a test case for the international vaccine push.

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The right to demonstrate, even during lockdown

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Israelis are being allowed out of their homes in full lockdown to call for the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Bibi), who is viewed by many on both sides of the political spectrum as corrupt.

This freedom in a lockdown which ordinarily limits you to being no more than one kilometre from your house is based on the country’s constitutional right to protest. On bridges, at junctions, and outside Bibi’s house in Jerusalem, daily protests occur, resuming after Shabbat goes out on Saturday night.

Lech! Lech!” (Go!) is shouted loudly – which is also the name for the movement against Netanyahu.

There are some staunch Likud followers who scream, “Arafat and Rabin sold out the country,” prompting laughter amongst some demonstrators, who point out that their arguments are old and outdated. Demonstrators including doctors, lawyers, pilots, accountants, and students point out that this isn’t about the Israel-Palestine issue, it’s not about being leftist or rightist, but about ethics and bringing to justice an allegedly corrupt prime minister.

The protestors are passionate, some defying orders not to camp outside Bibi’s residence. At 21:30, police order the drums, trumpets, and whistles to cease. The protestors obey, but continue to demonstrate quietly, so as not to disturb the Jerusalem neighbourhood.

Then, at about 23:00, carrying Israeli flags in blue and white and others in red and white, the protestors pack up and go home to lockdown.

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