Israeli United Hatzalah volunteers working in earthquake-stricken Morocco have pivoted from search and rescue to treating victims.

The United Hatzalah situation room in Jerusalem on Sept. 18, 2023. Photo courtesy of Yoav Dudkevitch/TPS.

In a phone call with the Tazpit Press Service from the rural Moroccan village of Askouen, Hatzalah’s director of French operations, Samuel Arrouas, said, “Now we’re treating people who, for example… can’t get the medicines they need.”

United Hatzalah is an Israeli non-profit emergency medical services organization.

At least 3,000 people have died since a 6.8 magnitude earthquake struck Morocco on Sept. 8. The quake, whose epicenter was near Marrakech, devastated rural villages where thousands of homes collapsed, trapping people in the rubble.

Within 24 hours, a Hatzalah delegation was on the ground, involved in search and rescue operations.

Arrouas said the delegation has been traveling around rural Morocco, setting up a field clinic in small communities and treating people. Locations were chosen in consultation with local community leaders.

“We’re seeing people who didn’t have a lot, [and] who lost everything,” said Arrouas. “People with diabetes or high blood pressure who lost their medicine. People who broke a leg and now it’s infected, or they’re dehydrated. We’re treating on average 150-200 people a day.”

Arrouas said that when there’s free time, the volunteers spend time with Moroccan children, drawing pictures, passing out balloons and distributing toys.

“It’s like they’ve never seen toys in rural areas,” said Arrouas. “Most of the kids don’t go to school. They start working at a young age, and now they’ve lost their parents, and Israelis are passing out bread and playing with them.”

He told TPS about one eight-year-old boy who received a piece of candy from another humanitarian delegation and shared the treat with the Israelis “as a thank you” gesture.

The aid work also meant spending Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, in the Atlas Mountains, away from families back in Israel. But saving lives “comes before everything,” Arrouas stressed.

Asked how the situation compares to other disaster areas he’s worked in, Arrouas said Morocco’s earthquake was “different” from the quake in February that killed more than 67,000 people in Turkey and Syria.

“In Turkey, buildings were higher and people were buried in the rubble for a long time,” he said. “Here, the buildings aren’t as solid, but it was easier to get people out because the homes were simpler.”

Israel and Morocco normalized relations in December 2020 as part of the U.S.-brokered Abraham Accords. An estimated one million Israelis are either from Morocco or are of Moroccan descent. Approximately 3,000 Jews live in the North African country.