Wildfires [+ wild rumors] 60,000+ people evacuated in Haifa area

On the third day of wildfires in Israel and the West Bank, international help began arriving, but conditions suddenly worsened significantly in the morning, particularly in the Haifa area. Israeli authorities ordered the evacuation of at least 60,000 people.

UPDATE: By nightfall, The Jerusalem Post reported here that “80,000 residents have now been told to evacuate”.

Almost exactly six years ago, a similar fire grew out-of-control, some 42 people died in the flames, and Israel’s lack of preparedness to fight fires was exposed. Israel was prepared to fight wars, but not fires. See our earlier reports on that fire in this blog, here and here and here.

In December 2010, Israel had no firefighting airplanes – none.  Since then, Israel has apparently acquired 12 firefighting airplanes, but still needed more in the Haifa area today. Netanyahu, according to the Jerusalem Post story mentioned above, “said that Israel’s squadron of some 12 firefighting aircraft was not enough, and that he turned to other countries for assistance. By midnight, he said, a total of 10 planes will have arrived from Russia, Greece, Italy, Cyprus and Turkey. The [US] Supertanker, however, is the only plane with the capabilities to operate at night, and will arrive in approximately 28 hours”.

    Haaretz: “It was almost six years ago to the day that Israel suffered its worst natural disaster ever. The fire that erupted in the Carmel Forest in northern Israel on December 2, 2010, lasting four days and claiming 44 lives, remains a national trauma.  About 17,000 Israelis were evacuated from their homes during that disaster, and thousands of acres of forest were destroyed. It took U.S. intervention, in the form of a Boeing 747 Supertanker flown across the Atlantic, to extinguish the last flames…The weather conditions then were remarkably similar to those today, as Shahar Ayalon, Israel’s former fire and rescue commissioner, notes. For that reason, he says, he was not surprised by the outbreak of the latest fires. ‘You have a combination of drought conditions and dry winds from the east, and this is the result,. he told Haaretz. ‘It’s to be expected’. Clearly, Israel had been caught unprepared in 2010. It did not have the manpower or the equipment required to battle a fire of that magnitude. Nor did its command and controls systems operate as they should have… Ayalon was appointed head of Israel’s firefighting authorities in 2011, not long after the Carmel disaster, and remained in his post until six months ago. During this time, he says, ‘everything that was promised was fulfilled’.  In recent years, according to Ayalon, 800 new firefighters were recruited – almost doubling the size of the force. A squadron of firefighting planes was established, and 20 new fire stations were opened around the country”. 
    read more: http://www.haaretz.com/israel-news/.premium – report posted here.

However, Reuters reported that “Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the leader of the Jewish Home party which supports settlements in the West Bank where Palestinians seek statehood, said on Twitter that arsonists were disloyal to Israel, hinting that those who set the fires could not be Jewish. ‘Only those to whom the country does not belong are capable of burning it,’ he said in a tweet in Hebrew”. This was published here.

The Reuters report also noted that “On social media, some Arabs and Palestinians celebrated the fires and the hashtag #Israelisburning was trending on Twitter”.

This did not happen in 2010 — a lot has changed since then…

The weather has been a big factor in these fires, both in 2010 and in 2016.

As Reuters stated, “The fires have been burning in multiple locations for the past three days but intensified on Thursday, fueled by unseasonably dry weather and strong easterly winds…Local weather forecasters have said the tinder-dry conditions – it has not rained in parts of Israel for months – and strong winds are set to continue for several days and they see little prospect of normal seasonal precipitation arriving”…

UPDATE: By midnight, YNet reported here: Eight Palestinian firefighter vehicles, escorted by the Commander of the Jenin Civil Administration, made their way to Haifa to help extinguish the fires raging in the city. In 2010 the PA did provide succor in the Mount Carmel Forest fires”.

Kerry eats a shawarma sandwich in Ramallah today

Here is the photo just Tweeted by the U.S. State Department —

@StateDept — (Photo) #SecKerry stopped by a shawarma shop for lunch in #Ramallah today.  http://flic.kr/p/eoY9a4

This is Samer Restaurant on Nablus Street in Ramallah, not very far from the Muqata’a — and that is Samer himself, opposite Kerry.

US State Dept photo of John Kerry enjoying a shawarma sandwich in Ramallah today
This photo is posted on the US State Department’s Ramallah May 23, 2013 Flickr set, here.

The food here is simple, but healthy [shawarma, bits of grilled meat pressed together with a lot of garlic, is very like Greek souvlaki… We now know from the Passport Blog investigation here that it was turkey (chicken) shawarma that Kerry had.]

Full disclosure: I bought a grilled chicken last night from Samer!

But, Kerry’s adventure in a small block of Ramallah not far from the center was breath-taking, when you see the security measures that the Palestinian President takes in town [much less the U.S. Consulate’s normal precautions]…

And, as one Palestinian official in Ramallah told me a few hours later, it was “very smart!”

He treated a few Palestinian small businessmen as if they were…well, normal people, people that anyone could have a  pleasant interaction with on a sunny spring afternoon, not people who are scary or who should be locked up behind checkpoints.

It’s amazing that the security detail allowed this highly unusual mingling with the people — while a small anti-Kerry demonstration took place a few streets away…

There was a comment on this exact point on Twitter:
Palestine Video ?@PalestineVideoPA news tried to cover protests against Kerry’s visit with news of a Shawerma stunt http://youtu.be/USt9xKAAImE  #Palestine #Video #Palestinian

The State Department photo appears in their Ramallah May 23, 2013 set on Flickr here.

It seems there were a lot of photographers snapping  pictures of this photo-op — here’s another view via @MarquardtA on Twitter:

Kerry eating a shawarma sandwich at Samer Restaurant in Ramallah
Kerry eating a shawarma sandwich at Samer Restaurant in Ramallah


Kerry converses with Samer of Samer Restaurant, Ramallah
Kerry converses with Samer of Samer Restaurant, Ramallah

In his meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem earlier today, Kerry said:
“Let me just say to everybody I know this region well enough to know that there is skepticism. In some corridors, there’s cynicism. And there are reasons for it. There have been bitter years of disappointment. It is our hope that by being methodical, careful, patient – but detailed and tenacious – that we can lay out a path ahead that could conceivably surprise people, but certainly exhaust the possibilities of peace. That’s what we’re working towards…”

Well, this is a surprise.

UPDATE: A Ramallah taxi driver told me he noticed the whole street was closed with lots of security + presidential guards, so he quickly turned to an alternative route. The whole visit lasted mayhbe 15-20 minutes, he said.

Kerry also visited the bicycle-and-other-things shop across the street from Samer Restaurant – photo from the US Consul General in Jerusalem, here:

Kerry talks with people in the bicycle-and-other-things shop near Samer Restaurant
Kerry talks with people in the bicycle-and-other-things shop near Samer Restaurant

UPDATE: Ma’an News Agency later reported here that “Kerry’s tour [n.b. – he also visited Samer Sweet Shop across the street] followed a meeting with President Mahmoud Abbas in the latter’s office in Ramallah.  Several officials attended the talks including PLO secretary Yasser Abed Rabbo, Executive Committee member Saeb Erekat, Abbas’ spokesman Nabil Abu Rdeina and a presidential adviereser on economic affairs. Abbas told Kerry the Palestinians were serious about resuming peace negotiations to save the two-state solution. The president also addressed ongoing settlement expansion and settler assaults against the Palestinian people in the West Bank”.

How can a winter storm be so bad — and so very bad in Palestinian areas?

We now know, from Reuters, that “The worst winter storm in two decades has hit the eastern Mediterranean this week”,

The Reuters report, published here, notes that in Syria, “dozens of people have died … in four days of relentless extreme weather. At least 17 people have also died due to the storm in Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey, Israel and the Palestinian territories. Schools in some areas have been shut for days, refugee camps flooded and villages isolated by closed roads. Meteorological agencies in Israel and Lebanon both called it the worst storm in 20 years … Families are burning doors and chairs to keep warm in the absence of fuel in Aleppo, Syria’s most populous city, now largely in rebel hands, said Michal Przedalcki, from Czech charity People In Need, working in northern Syria. ‘Unfortunately I think it quite likely that people will die from the severe weather conditions. Already people have not been eating enough for several  months, and that exposes their bodies to more disease and infection, especially after also living through weeks of cold conditions’, he said”.

Temporary camps for Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan are flooded and freezing.

[However, it’s  reported here to be even worse for Palestinian refugees fleeing from Syria. who “are being placed in compounds under strict conditions….[and] are being banned from entering Jordanian cities”… UPDATE: The Times of Israel later reported here that “Syria’s southern neighbor, Jordan, has begun to turn away Palestinian refugees fleeing toward the border, Al-Jazeera reported earlier this week”, in a post published here. The Al-Jazeera report noted that “while Palestinian refugees carrying Jordanian IDs were allowed to enter Jordan, children of Jordanian women who were not citizens are being refused”… And Al-Jazeera reported that Jordanian government spokesperson Samih Maaytah said that “Jordan does not prevent the return of its citizens… but the transfer of Palestinian refugees from Syria to Jordan is a matter of tens of thousands, something Jordan cannot bear”. The Al-Jazeera report added that “Jordan has absorbed some 126,000 Syrian refugees, but Palestinians fleeing Syria are placed in a separate refugee camp at the Cyber City compound, under stricter conditions, and are banned from entering Jordanian cities. The Jordanian government fears that an influx of Palestinian refugees may tilt the demographic balance in Jordan even more towards the Palestinians, who are already believed to comprise a large majority of the population”…]

Some of the homes for Palestinian refugees in Al-Amary camp near the center of downtown Ramallah are also flooded and cold. The camp, located in a low-lying area, is flooded in even normal rainfall. But the rain in this storm has been continuing for days. Most of the time, the 8,000 residents of Al-Amary camp had only each other to rely upon for bailing out the icy muddy water for several days.

Most residents of Ramallah were house-bound by Wednesday evening, because their cars could not make it up even a slight incline — never mind the hills that many people in Ramallah live on.

UPDATE: At 21h35, there was… well, not a snow plow, but a yellow catepillar construction vehicle with big treaded wheels and a scoop in front that was clearing a single lane on the street with the slight incline, going up to Ramallah Hospital.

By the end of the afternoon, there was a light dusting of snow on streets + roads again in Ramallah. Most cars [worn tires?] can’t make it up a slight incline. Only one passenger car, and one heavy truck on its second try, made it in one very slightly inclined area. Fascinating behavior ensued.

There was flooding yesterday in Tel Aviv, and in northern Israel and also in Lebanon — and in the West Bank, where there appears to be no kind of drainage for any of the new roads.

It’s bad everywhere. But it’s hard to describe enough how much worse the grimness of the difficult, exhausting, depressing + stressful experience of week-long winter storms is, in Palestinian areas.

Another Reuters story, posted here, reports that:

      “Heavy winter downpours have turned some Palestinian lands in the occupied West Bank into a morass of filth and flooding as an Israeli barrier blocks the waters from draining away. In Qalqilya, a town of 42,000 in the northern West Bank almost completely surrounded by the concrete wall, Khaled Kandeel and his family huddled by an open fire in a shed as trash-laden water swelled through his pear orchard. ‘Before the wall, the water used to drain fine, and flowed down to the sea easily. They could just flip a switch and end our suffering, but they don’t’, Kandeel said, his breath steamy from the winter cold…Drainage channels run under the imposing ramparts but their automated metal gates are mostly closed and now clogged with refuse and stones that block the outflow of storm water. The Israeli military, citing security reasons, generally bars locals from clearing the obstructions or digging their own channels close to the barrier…Hemmed-in residents of northern towns in the West Bank have been deprived of large swathes of rural land, forcing poorly-regulated waste dumping closer to farms and homes. Driving rain could not mask the stench of raw sewage being unloaded from a tanker on a village road outside Qalqilya on Tuesday, its putrid contents mixing with the brown torrent pouring past olive trees clustered on the hills … Planning restrictions, inked as part of interim peace accords by Israeli and Palestinian negotiators almost two decades ago, widely limit locals’ ability to build water infrastructure or repair damaged or polluted wells.
      But in Hebron, whose old city is a flashpoint of conflict with Jewish settlers, rare coordination with the Israeli military allowed Palestinian officials to lift the concrete slabs which separate the ethnic enclaves to relieve flooding.  ‘We removed the concrete to prevent the passage of water to the old city souq, where flooding reached up to one meter’, said Walid Abu Halawa of Hebron’s construction commission. ‘We also opened holes in the iron barrier built by the Occupation at the terminus of the souq’, he told Reuters”…

And many are facing this misery without any money.

In the West Bank, Palestinian Authority employees [the PA is the largest employer in the occupied Palestinian territory] got 2nd half of their October salary at beginning of November. But, the banks took full loan installments due — leaving many people without cash since the beginning of October.

At the beginning of December, no salaries were paid… On 24 December, the first half of November salaries were finally paid, but again the banks took their full loan installments due from the Palestinian government employees. Government employees were left with even less cash than in early November…

Hard to understand, but many families here, dependent on the area’s largest employer, have had no cash to operate on since early October.

And this winter weather is cruel, and exhausting, and seems endless…

After cease-fire in Gaza, IDF says it arrests senior Hamas + Islamic Jihad people in the West Bank

After last night’s cease-fire in Gaza, the IDF says it has now arrested — “in cooperation with the ISA [Israel Security Agency], Israel Police and the Israel Border Police” — some 55 people said to be affiliated Hamas + Islamic Jihad, from the north to the south of the West Bank.

According to the IDF announcement, they include “a number of senior level operatives” — but the IDF published no names.

The official IDF explanation is: it will “to restore calm”.  In the past eight days, there has been unrest and protest demonstrations around the West Bank against the IDF Operation Pillar of Clouds against Gaza, and at least 62 protesters against Operation Pillar of Clouds were detained by the IDF during the operation in Gaza.

However, almost none of these protests are organized by Hamas or Islamic Jihad, who take a quite low-key profile in the West Bank. Nor is it Hamas or Islamic Jihad who send young men out to throw stones whenever they see jeeps of Israeli soldiers in the West Bank.

Hamas officials have regularly been arrested ever since their electoral victory in 2006 Legislative Council elections. Islamic Jihad activities were “prohibited” in the occupied Palestinian territory by a decree of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on 6 October 2010.

Until last night, most of the West Bank unrest has been due to protests led by a combination of the popular committees and the younger anti-Oslo Accords, anti-PA, anti-Abbas protesters who came together last year in support of Egypt’s Tahrir Square revolution. One of their main platforms is the call for a revival of, and world-wide Palestinian elections to, the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Palestine National Council [PNC]. .

Hamas is not yet a member of the PLO, despite an agreement in Cairo in 2005 that this would happen.

What prevented Hamas’ joining the PLO was a tough position by Fateh “unity” negotiators against Hamas getting an allocated percentage of seats in the PNC proportional to the more-than-60% seats it won in the local Palestinian Legislative Council in 2006 elections. The Fateh negotiators were firm that Hamas did not deserve more than 20-25% of the seats in the PNC, which the Fateh negotiators insisted was the true strength of Hamas.

Those who were arrested this week, until last night, were the younger more secular crowd.

Addameer, a prisoners support group based in Ramallah, Tweeted this: @Addameer_ps – There has been a spike in arrests across the West Bank since the Occupation attacked #Gaza last week.

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