Israelis fear for many loved ones in disaster zone
By Dan Baron
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HAIFA (JTA) -- For thousands of young Israelis, the sun-drenched archipelagos of Southeast Asia were the perfect destination to forget the rigors of military service.
But in the last week of December that post-Zionist nirvana became a nightmare.
The tsunamis that swept India, Thailand, Sri Lanka and the Andaman Islands on Dec. 26 plunged hundreds of Israeli
families into a frenzy of worry over relatives feared lost while touring.
Israel's Foreign Ministry said that witness testimony suggested at least a dozen of some 500 Israeli tourists still unaccounted for in hard-hit Southeast Asian nations may have been swept out to sea and drowned.
At least 33 Israelis were receiving treatment in hospitals in the region in the days immediately following the disaster, the Foreign Ministry said.
A Jewish couple from Belgium reportedly lost their 11-month-old son in the disaster. According to Israel's Ma'ariv newspaper, Matan Nassima's body was
found Dec. 28 near the Thai
resort where his family had vacationed.
The child's parents had posted a picture of the boy on the newspaper's Web site after he was swept away during the tsunami, in hopes that Israeli tourists might recognize him and report his whereabouts. Matan's grandfather told Ma'ariv that the toddler likely would be buried in Israel.
Details were not immediately known, but it also was believed that members of the South
African, Australian and New Zealand Jewish communities were missing.
Immediately after the tragedy, Israel and Jewish groups swung into action.
Israel's Foreign Ministry set aside $100,000 in aid for each of the countries hit by the tsunami. Four top doctors from Israel's Hadassah Hospital were dispatched to Colombo, Sri Lanka, at the ministry's request, Hadassah said. Among them were the hospital's head of general surgery and trauma, its chief of pediatrics and two anesthesiologists.
Sri Lanka turned down an Israeli offer to send military personnel to help with search-and-rescue efforts, but said it would accept a smaller team.
The efforts were appreciated by at least one Israeli located bruised but safe at the Thai resort of Phuket.
"Everyone has been great. I have been visited by Israeli diplomatic representatives, as well as Chabad," Yaron Weiss told Channel 2 television from his hospital bed. "I have a feeling that the other tourists here are a bit jealous that their countries are not as attentive."
North American Jewish groups also were paying attention.
The American Jewish World Service expected to send medicine to Sri Lanka, Indonesia and India. It was coordinating with 23 partner organizations in the region to assess needs.
The American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee is working with its office in Mumbai (Bombay) and elsewhere to coordinate relief efforts.
B'nai B'rith also was accepting donations to help victims.
Chabad of Thailand responded to the crisis by dispatching a rabbi to Phuket to aid rescue efforts, and turned the three Chabad Houses of Thailand into crisis centers where survivors can call home, have a free meal or receive funds for new clothing and medical help.
For families of potential victims, the waiting for news was excruciating.
At Erez Katran's home in Haifa, a 24-hour vigil was set up next to the telephone in hopes that he would call. His family hoped Katran's silence was due to the fact that he was incommunicado while sailing in the Bay of Bengal.
Katran was among nearly 200 Israelis who remained unaccounted for as of Dec. 28, despite urgent Foreign Ministry efforts to track them down. Israeli officials put their best face on what was emerging as a crisis of global proportion.
But hearts across the Jewish state sank as reports surfaced from the hardest-hit coastal resorts.