Palestinian Civil Defense firefighters have returned from battling Carmel blaze in Israel – UPDATED

[6 Dec 2010] – Back in his office in Bethlehem on Monday, Major Ibrahim Aish, head of the Bethlehem Civil Defense Directorate – and leader of the team of 21 Palestinian firemen that travelled on Sunday to join the battle against the huge blaze in the Carmel hills of Israel’s Galilee region near Haifa — said that he and the team had returned about 11 pm last night.

Aish said that the order for the team to travel came directly from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday afternoon, following a phone call from Israel’s Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu.

But, he added, he had already been alerted on Saturday morning to begin preparations, in case an Israeli request should arrive.

“Actually, they should have asked us from the beginning”, Aish said.

There are about 900 Palestinian Civil Defense firefighters in the West Bank, he noted, of whom 30 are women — and the women are all engineers, involved in the planning and coordination of emergency and rescue efforts rather than actually in carrying out risky operations. In all of Israel, with a population that is more than twice the size of the West Bank’s, there are only a few more than 1300 fire-fighters.

The Palestinian firefighters in Gaza, which were once fully integrated with those in the West Bank into one Civil Defense force, have been a completely separate operation since the Hamas rout of Fatah/Palestinian Preventive Security forces in mid-June 2007, Major Aish noted.

Major Aish — who is himself from Bethlehem — said that he had 26 years of experience in Civil Defense, and that it was probably because of his seniority that he was asked by the Civil Defense Commander in Ramallah, Ahmad Rizq, to head the Palestinian team going to Carmel.

He had participated in special training in Ramallah from January through March of this year, along with about 40 other officers from the various Palestinian Police, Civil Defense, Intelligence, and Preventive and National Security services, conducted by American Lt General Keith Dayton and his team. The aim, Major Aish said, was to help bring everyone together in preparation for the establishment of a Palestinian State. “I only knew 7 or 8 of them when we started”, Major Aish said, “but now relations and friendships have been established between us, and we keep in touch”.

Wide awake, fresh, and full of energy after an epic day of firefighting on Sunday, Aish said: “I like to help the people. This is our work: to help the people — Arabs, Jews, or anyone”.

The Palestinian team left for the Haifa area at 4 am on Sunday morning, driving in three Palestinian fire trucks [accompanied by one logistical car] — less than one-tenth of the total Palestinian firetruck fleet in the West Bank.

UPDATE: Ma’an News Agency’s George Hale has just posted photos of the Palestinian firetrucks being inspected at the Jalameh crossing before entering Israel on Sunday. These photos can be viewed here [link no longer available, archiving links broken when website changed, it seems]

No, Major Aish said, is not true that Palestinian fire trucks, funded by the EU, are more modern than those Israel has — first of all, he noted, because, despite many promises, no EU-funded fire trucks have yet been delivered.

The PA has about ten firetrucks donated by Japan in 1994, at the beginning of the Oslo process, and another 30 to 40 more in the West Bank that have been purchased by the PA.

Major Aish and his hand-picked men from Bethlehem travelled directly to Jenin, using Road 60 to bypass congestion around checkpoints in the Ramallah area. A group from Ramallah went separately (via Atarot) to Jenin. When they were all assembled in Jenin, they travelled together almost straight north to the Jalameh crossing, where they were met by at the Jalameh DCO [District Coordination or Liaison Office] by an Israeli Army escort.

After entering Israel, they passed through Afula, and turned toward the Mediterranean coast.

The Palestinian team was first taken to Haifa University, where they did not see any command center, but they were presented to some journalists. Then, they were taken to Beit Oren, which Major Aish described as an “agricultural village”. It was not destroyed completely, he said, some places were burned and some were not. “Some pine trees were still burning”, he said, “but others were untouched. Trees that were 70 to 100 years old were completely burnt, as well as agriculture areas. Yet, we saw some houses intact and some farm horses alive … I’ve seen this type of devastation before, but never on such a scale”.

“It will take them at least 20 years to bring things back”, he said.

The Palestinian firefighters worked from 9:30 am until 5:30 or 6:00 pm at night, until all the fires were extinguished there.

“In the eyes of our Israeli colleagues, I could see they were very glad we were there”, Major Aish said, and added: “I see the possibility of peace and of us living together — our human feeling was always present, and reinforced by this fire”.

While there, Aish said,”I told my Israeli colleagues that today we are fighting a big fire, but I look forward to fighting hatred hand-in-hand, Palestinians and Israelis together. We are all human beings”.

In response to a question, Major Aish said that since the successful completion of the Palestinian firefighting mission, he had not been called personally by President Abbas — who has travelled to Turkey on a two-day visit related to peace moves, while Israeli and Turkish delegations are meeting in Geneva.

But, he noted that before the Palestinian team set off, Civil Defense General Commander Rizq transmitted the President’s recommendations to be serious and take this matter very seriously.

And, Major Aish said, he knew it was also very important to show the world the work of the Palestinian Civil Defense, because teams from so many countries were also working to fight the Carmel blaze.

There hasn’t been a sea-change, yet, in Israeli-Palestinian relations as a result of the Palestinian contribution to the international fire-fighting effort over the weekend.

There were no medals handed out by Israel to the Palestinian firefighters, and no farewell ceremony, but he did get a phone call of thanks Monday morning, he said, “from the person who received us in the name of Israel, the head of the Nature Preservation and Civil Defense efforts. He said he wanted to invite me back to Haifa”, Aish, said, “and I wouldn’t go alone”.

“I told him that we, as Arabs, don’t look for thanks or reward when we do something humanitarian”.

UPDATE: As I was speaking with Major Aish in his Bethlehem office on Monday afternoon, the Ramallah-based General Commander [Director-General] of the Palestinian Authority’s Civil Defense Directorate, Brigadier General Ahmad Rizq [Rezeq], was in Jerusalem accepting thanks and being applauded at a hastily-arranged Israeli ceremony at the residence of Israel’s State President Shimon Peres to show appreciation to the international contingents who participated in the battle against the Carmel blaze…. See the Jerusalem Post report here — it was published on Wednesday 8 December 2010…

A press release sent around by the Israeli Government Press Office at 5:16 pm on Tuesday 7 December, written by President Peres’ spokespersons, telling us that: “300 members of the various delegations participated in the event including fire fighters, pilots, emergency response experts, and Ambassadors from 10 countries. There were delegations representing Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Holland, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, Britain, United States, Russia, Jordan, Turkey, and the Palestinian Authority. The participants crowded into the expanded Hall in the President’s Residence specifically so all of the delegates could be included in the event”.

According to the press release, Peres said: “On behalf of the State of Israel, on behalf of all the people; children, women, parents, I want to thank all of you and each of you for coming so courageously, so promptly, to save lives and save land. Many times Israel has sent its people to aid countries that suffered earthquakes or fires. This is the first time that we have needed assistance from others. We were touched by the amazing response – the response of countries and the human response on a personal level. We lost many good people in this fire and we feel that you saved lives. God should bless you. Fighting fires is a horrible thing. Many of you jumped into the fire to save lives. The pilots in their planes often operated in harsh weather conditions. The wind was strong and uncooperative, changing direction all the time. In spite of these difficult conditions you didn’t hesitate. You came from near and far – from Russia and the United States, and also from the Palestinian Authority and Jordan. What more can we say to you other than to give you the thanks of children and mothers, thanks from our nation on this extraordinary courageous demonstration of solidarity.  You overcame the fire and brought new hope … Thank you for your mission which is neither diplomatic nor foreign relations but rather expresses the highest form of human responsibility.”

In the same ceremony, we are told, Prime Minister Netanyahu said: “In helping us douse the flames you have warmed the hearts of the entire nation and you have shown us that we are not alone. You have shown us that around the world there are people of good will that will help us in our hour of need. I believe that this rapid international response can be model for future cooperation in our region. I thank each and every one of you for your courage, your dedication, and your friendship. The people of Israel, an ancient people with a long memory, will never forget what you have done for us” …

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