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Israel preparing to send search and rescue mission, assistance to quake-hit Morocco

Israel is preparing to send a search and rescue mission and humanitarian aid to Morocco after a powerful earthquake shook the North African country and killed hundreds of people, officials said Saturday.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered “all ministries and forces to provide assistance as necessary to the Moroccan people, including planning to send an aid delegation to the area,” a statement from his office said.

Netanyahu said “The people of Israel extend their hands to our friends, the people of Morocco, at this difficult time and pray for their well-being. We will help in any way we can.”

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant ordered the IDF and Defense Ministry “to prepare to provide immediate emergency assistance via the rescue bodies in the Home Front Command,” a statement from his office said.

Foreign Minister Eli Cohen also told his ministry and the embassy in Rabat to contact Moroccan authorities to see how Israel can be of assistance, the Ynet news site reported.

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Israel is a world leader in search and rescue operations and has sent delegations to assist in major quakes, including in Turkey, Mexico, and Haiti.

Illustrative: IDF search and rescue teams work to find survivors after an earthquake in Turkey on February 10, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

The powerful earthquake that struck Morocco Friday night has killed at least 632 people and injured 329 others, according to an updated interior ministry toll released Saturday morning.

Of those injured, 51 were in critical condition, the ministry said, after the 6.8-magnitude quake that struck 72 kilometers (45 miles) southwest of tourist hotspot Marrakesh.

The Israeli Foreign Ministery also said in a statement that currently there were no reports of Israeli casualties in the quake, but that “we continue to try and contact all the Israelis who are in Morocco to ensure that they are safe.”

Morocco earthquake live news: 296 killed as powerful quake hits Morocco pic.twitter.com/KvM7xsfIkA

— Truthseeker (@Xx17965797N) September 9, 2023

The private IsrAid humanitarian aid agency has also offered Rabat assistance to supply emergency equipment and water technology, the Ynet news site reported.

Israel and Morocco signed a normalization agreement in 2020 and ties have developed swiftly since then.  Netanyahu has been invited to visit.

The country is a popular tourist destination for Israelis, with many having Moroccan roots, and several were caught up in the quake.

“I woke up my mother, I shouted at her to get up and we crawled under the table together and started to pray,” Sigal Shemer of Tel Aviv told Channel 12 news. The two were traveling in Marrakesh.

“We then ran down the four stories and waited outside the hotel. For now, we can’t go back to our room,” she said.

Moroccans also described the chaos.

“We felt a very violent tremor, and I realized it was an earthquake,” Abdelhak El Amrani, a 33-year-old in Marrakesh, told AFP by telephone.

“I could see buildings moving. We don’t necessarily have the reflexes for this type of situation. Then I went outside and there were a lot of people there. People were all in shock and panic. The children were crying and the parents were distraught.”

This handout frame grab of video footage courtesy of Michaël Bizet and provided to AFPTV early September 9, 2023 shows a damaged building in Marrakesh, following a 6.8 magnitude earthquake that struck Morocco. (Photo by Handout / various sources / AFP)

“The power went out for 10 minutes, and so did the (telephone) network, but then it came back on,” he added. “Everyone decided to stay outside.”

The quake “killed 296 people in the provinces and municipalities of Al-Haouz, Marrakesh, Ouarzazate, Azilal, Chichaoua and Taroudant”, Morocco’s interior ministry said in a statement, citing a provisional report.

Another 153 people were injured, it added.

Faisal Baddour, an engineer, said he felt the earthquake three times in his building.

“People went out into the street just after this total panic, and there are families who are still sleeping outside because we were so scared of the force of this earthquake,” he said. “It was as if a train was passing close to our houses.”

Frenchman Michael Bizet, 43, who owns three traditional riad houses in Marrakesh’s old town, told AFP that he had been in bed at the time of the quake.

“I thought my bed was going to fly away. I went out into the street half-naked and immediately went to see my riads. It was total chaos, a real catastrophe, madness,” he said.

Residents stay out at a square following an earthquake in Marrakesh on September 9, 2023. (Photo by Fadel SENNA / AFP)

The 43-year-old shared video of piles of rubble from collapsed walls in the streets.

Footage on social media also showed part of a minaret collapsed on Jemaa el-Fna square in the historic city.

An AFP correspondent saw hundreds of people flocking to the square to spend the night for fear of aftershocks, some with blankets while others slept on the ground.

Houda Outassaf, a local resident, told AFP he was walking around the square when the ground began to shake.

“It was a truly staggering sensation. We’re safe and sound, but I’m still in shock,” he said.

“I have at least 10 members of my family who died… I can hardly believe it, as I was with them no more than two days ago.”

Fayssal Badour, another Marrakesh resident, told AFP he was driving when the earthquake hit.

“I stopped and realized what a disaster it was… The screaming and crying was unbearable,” he said.

The interior ministry said authorities have “mobilized all the necessary resources to intervene and help the affected areas”.

The regional blood transfusion center in Marrakesh has called on residents to donate blood for those injured.

In the town of Al-Haouz, near the epicenter of the quake, a family was trapped in the rubble after their house collapsed, local media reported.

The USGS PAGER system, which provides preliminary assessments on the impact of earthquakes, issued a red alert for economic losses, saying extensive damage is probable and the disaster is likely widespread.

????Breaking News ???? A huge magnitude 6.8 earthquake has hit Morocco, striking near the city of Marrakesh, affecting nearby cities all the way to the coast and north. In the past couple of hours around 300 people have died and hundreds more are injured. pic.twitter.com/F41zLYZlbR

— Karim Wafa Al-Hussaini (@DrKarimWafa) September 9, 2023

Past events with this alert level have required a national or international level response, according to the US government agency.

Internet connectivity was disrupted in Marrakesh due to power cuts, according to global internet monitor NetBlocks.

Moroccan media reported it was the most powerful earthquake to hit the country to date.

German Chancellor Olaf Scholz offered condolences, while Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said he was “pained” by news of the quake.

The earthquake was also felt in neighboring Algeria, where the Algerian Civil Defence said it had not caused any damage or casualties.

In 2004, at least 628 people were killed and 926 injured when a quake hit Al Hoceima in northeastern Morocco, and in 1960 a magnitude 6.7 quake in Agadir killed more than 12,000.

The 7.3-magnitude El Asnam earthquake in neighboring Algeria in 1980 was regionally one of the most destructive earthquakes in recent history.

It killed 2,500 people and left at least 300,000 homeless.