Flying visits into the danger zones

By Jessica Elgot, March 31, 2011
Gal Lousky, founder of Israeli Flying Aid, at the charity’s camp after the Indonesian earthquake in May 2006

Gal Lousky, founder of Israeli Flying Aid, at the charity’s camp after the Indonesian earthquake in May 2006

In the aftermath of the earthquake, Japan's government insisted that a large influx of NGOs and charitable help was not needed. Disaster relief was being led by the government and Japanese Red Cross.

But at an intimate meeting in London, Israeli Flying Aid founder Gal Lousky told her audience that the IFA did not seek the permission of governments to save the lives of people caught up in wars or natural disasters. It delivers aid to citizens of countries hostile to Israel, and places where regimes prevent humanitarian aid reaching dying people. It can constitute medical assistance, trauma counselling or search and rescue. She says: "I believe nobody asks permission to kill. Why should I ask permission to save lives?"

Often risking their own lives, the charity's volunteers have worked in the Tamil areas of Sri Lanka, and in Georgia, Chechnya, Pakistan, Kashmir, Indonesia and Burma. Founded in 1999, the IFA has no employees but 1,200 volunteers. Ms Lousky says even she is not paid, but sold her house five years ago and lives on the proceeds. When disaster strikes, Ms Lousky asks for volunteers. "They all have their own lives. I have had to negotiate with bosses and beg wives. In most cases, I have too many volunteers."

The charity needs the finances to be able to dispatch help within 12 hours of a disaster. Most of her funding comes from abroad as "Israelis mainly prefer to donate to causes at home. And, of course, some people ask why we risk our lives to save people who hate our country. But I believe Israel is strong enough to be able to send help to countries which are our enemies when the people are in need."

Supporters are now in the process of setting up a British Friends of IFA. In countries which have no diplomatic relations with Israel, IFA teams often have to work undercover, posing as European aid workers or Muslims. "We worked with Tamils in Sri Lanka after the 2004 tsunami. Many of the suicide bombers who came from Lebanon during the intifada were trained by the Tamil Tigers. But we came to treat them, their wives and children. And they agreed to take our assistance."

In Haiti, IFA volunteers operated alongside the Israeli army, taking over the IDF's projects when the army withdrew. They also worked with the US authorities after Hurricane Katrina.

There are times when no aid workers are welcome. "We believe that some governments wish to turn natural disasters into genocide," Ms Lousky observed. "No one was allowed into the delta area of Burma, which was where many of the monasteries are, after the cyclone in 2008. No Red Cross, no UN were allowed in. We were the only relief organisation, five volunteers, who risked going into the area."

One of her most moving stories dates from the Indonesian earthquake in 2006 when she asked children to draw their worst fears, as part of their trauma counselling. "One little boy drew a picture and explained his worst fear was war with the Jews because Israel is as big as America and all the Jews had fangs and claws. So we decided to take a chance. As we were leaving, we apologised for lying and told everyone in the refugee camp where we were from. And we asked them: 'Would you come and help us, if there was a disaster in Israel?' And the adults looked around embarrassed. But all the children jumped up and raised their hands."

Last updated: 11:44am, March 31 2011