Israeli "Thank you" to Palestinian firemen delayed because of "permit problems" – this is the occupation

[14 Dec 2010] Haaretz reported today, here, that “Israeli officials on Tuesday canceled a ceremony planned to honor the Palestinian firemen who assisted in battling the Carmel fire last week, after a number of crew members were refused permits to cross the border. Palestinian Fire Services Commander Ahmed Rizik said that he and his staff were surprised to learn when they arrived at the checkpoint that only seven out of the 10 fireman would be granted entry into Israel, although all of them had been allowed in at the time of the disaster … The army said it was now working on getting the honorees the correct permits”.

More than a week earlier, residents of Ein Hod village in the Carmel hills region of northern Israel posted this group photo, with this explanation: “Returning to our home after the fire, the first thing we did was get together for this group photo to say thank you to the rescue teams from Israel and from around the world. Thanks to their bravery we are now safely back to Ein Hod, our home“.

Group photo of Ein Hod residents saying Thank You to rescue teams from Israel and around the world during Carmal fire

The photo, and this note of explanation, was published here by the photographer, Raanan Tal.

The blaze burned out of control for more than three days.

Tal has posted a slideshow of some of his photos of the blaze here, which includes these two shots:

Photo of Carmel hills forest fire burning in Ein Hod by Raanan Tal

photo of the Carmel hills forest fire in December 2010 by Raanan Tal

Today, a group — including the Brigadier General Ahmed Rizq, chief of the Palestinian Authority’s Civil Defense forces [who did not personally participate in the mission to put out the blaze] and some of the Palestinian firemen he sent from the Israeli-occupied West Bank to join the international teams assisting Israel in its battle against the blaze — was on its way back for a thank you celebration when some of the group were not allowed to enter Israel.

The reason: lack of proper permits — for three out of the ten Palestinians who were going to participate in the ceremony..

So, in solidarity, none of the group proceeded.

This is being described in Israel as merely a bureaucratic snafu: some of the names of the Palestinian firemen were listed on the permit applications without their ID numbers [and nobody noticed until they arrived at the border checkpoint crossing…

[Though the irony has not gone unnoticed, and there has been a certain amount of scoffing at the explanation, it can be accepted at face value, for this is par for the course. This is the occupation. This is the daily reality (in fact, it is almost a best-case scenario — there are many much, much worse stories) of what it is like for Palestinians to live under this Israeli military occupation, which remains quite hands-on and direct in the West Bank. The bureaucracy and the paperwork is extensive. There seems to be a different category of procedures for each person It takes not less than two days, endless run-arounds, a lot of inconvenient and expensive travel, and enormous uncertainty and stress — and, of course, the fees must be paid. Information is incomplete, if provided at all. There are plenty of sloppy and careless mistakes, nobody gives a damn, and almost no one makes any effort to improve the process. This is the procedure. There are extemporaneous, spontaneous, ridiculous and supercilious excuses given by whichever Israeli soldier in uniform is on the spot. There are almost always various humiliations, and sometimes severe abuses. If challenged, the Israeli military response is always, but always: “We have done a thorough investigation, and we prefer the version of our soldiers to yours”… Visitors, even those who are well-informed in advance, are always astonished when they see the reality of life in the West Bank, and at the checkpoints. It is nothing less than sanitization, verging on falsehood, to say this is only a problem of movement and access.]

But, this mess-up has received extensive media coverage — more than the actual participation, at the time, of the Palestinian firemen in the international fire-fighting effort (after which Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu spoke euphorically of building a regional fire-fighting capacity. Now, he is talking only about a national capacity).

The Palestinian firemen worked in Israel only one long day, as the team leader, Major Ibrahim Aish, told me in an interview in his Bethlehem office on the day he returned [this is posted on this blog <a href=””>here</a>.

The Palestinian firemen were assigned to put out fires in nearby Beit Oren.

The participation of the Palestinian firemen in the battle against the Carmel hill blaze was not without controversy in the West Bank. A poll conducted by the Arabic-language website of Ma’an News Agency reported that a “slim majority” of respondents felt sending Palestinian firemen to help Israel was “disgraceful”.

Ma’an reported on its English-language website that “Of 48,870 readers who responded to the 7-day poll, 50.3 percent (24,524) described Palestinians’ participation as a disgrace, but 48.7 percent (23,761) said sending Palestinian firefighters to help was civilized and a humanitarian duty”.

No, the sad irony of the whole situation has not gone unnoticed.

[Ein Hod was previously the home to others — Palestinians, now refugees — who were forced to flee in the fighting that broke out at the proclamation of the state of Israel in 1948]

Writing for The New York Times, Isabelle Kershner reported yesterday that “From the Israeli Arab village of Ayn Hawd on a nearby hilltop, Zakaria Abu al-Hija looked down at the rooftops of Ein Hod, the village his father and other relatives fled, or were driven from, during the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, when Israel was established, and to which the family was not allowed to return. Most of the original Arab residents of what is now Ein Hod became refugees, landing in refugee camps in the West Bank city of Jenin or in Jordan. Yet Mr. Abu al-Hija says that those who stayed and became Israeli citizens have good relations with their Jewish neighbors in the artists’ colony, and that the deadly wildfire that broke out nearly two weeks ago and raged for four days did not distinguish between Arab and Jew. ‘It hurts all of us that Ein Hod burned’, Mr. Abu al-Hija said, ‘no matter who is living there’ … The inferno, the worst in Israel’s history, was finally brought under control with the help of an international aerial firefighting force, a rescue effort also laden with anomalies as Greek planes flew with Turkish ones, and Israeli firefighters faced the flames alongside crews sent in by the Palestinian Authority, including one from Jenin. Last Tuesday, two days after the fire had been extinguished, it poured rain, but in many places smoke still curled up, as if from deep under the ground.”

Max Blumenthal reported for the Electronic Intifada, here, that residents of both the original Ein Hod and the newer Ayn Hawd had to be evacuated during the Carmel forest fire. Blumenthal’s article, which has extensive background on the villages, recounts a visit he made there last June, half a year before the fire.

Kershner reported in her NYTimes article that “Jews told how Arab villages had offered them shelter as the fire approached, while the Arabs in Ayn Hawd said they had received hundreds of phone calls and offers of help from Jews. Perched on the Carmel mountain ridge overlooking the Mediterranean, Ein Hod and Ayn Hawd encapsulate some of the paradoxes of modern Israel. During the fighting in 1948, the Zionist forces attacked and overran Ayn Hawd and other villages in the area as part of an operation to prevent Arab militias from sniping at traffic on the Tel Aviv-Haifa road. By the end of the hostilities, about 400 Arab villages across the country had been razed. But the Romanian painter Marcel Janco, a founder of the Dada movement who came to Palestine fleeing the Nazis, begged for the picturesque Ein Hod, then Ayn Hawd, to be saved. The artists’ colony was established in 1953 and now has a population of more than 500. About 700,000 Arabs fled, or were expelled, from their homes during the war and became refugees, while 150,000 stayed behind. Arab citizens of Israel make up 20 percent of the population.

Among those who stayed were about 20 members of the Abu al-Hija family, including Zakaria’s father, Muhammad, who remained on their lands. Prevented from returning to their village homes, they set up a new Ayn Hawd nearby. At first they lived in tin shacks. Aisha, Muhammad’s widow, said they also used to sleep in caves. The first houses went up in the 1950s. Today, about 300 residents, all members of the same extended family, live in about 50 houses. Yet the Israeli authorities officially recognized Ayn Hawd as a legal village only in the 1990s, and it was hooked up to the national electric grid just two and a half years ago” …

The NYTimes article also reported that “Zakaria Abu al-Hija said that he sometimes works in Ein Hod, gardening or painting houses, and that he also has friends there. The house that had been his father’s survived the fire, he said, though he claimed that everyone who has lived in it since has suffered, whether from illness, bankruptcy or divorce. Personally, he said, he was not asking to move back to Ein Hod, though he noted that he could not speak for others in the West Bank or beyond. All he wants, he said, is for Israel to pave proper roads in Ayn Hawd and to provide the new village with a health clinic. But he added, ‘“Nobody knows what will happen from one day to the next, and nobody forgets their home’.” Isabelle Kershner’s story for the NYTimes can be read in full here.

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