NATAF, Judean Hills — The scent of burnt wood and ash permeated the hilltop of Nataf, a pastoral village in the Judean hills that was partially engulfed by flames on Friday afternoon.
It took just one hour for a “rolling ball of fire” to move across the hills, said Rama Ben Zvi, the owner of Rama’s Kitchen, a renowned country-style restaurant known for its changing menu of seasonal, herb-infused dishes, overlooking the pastoral landscape of the Judean hills.
“It’s just so simple,” says Ben Zvi, shaking her head, a pair of orange-rimmed reading glasses perched on her white-haired head. “A boy throws the bottle on the other side of the fence, and an hour later, it’s all burned up.”
Speaking Sunday, Ben Zvi says the fire was started by a Palestinian youth who threw a Molotov cocktail, although that has not been confirmed. Nataf overlooks a cluster of West Bank Palestinian villages, located no more than five kilometers away.
The restaurant was hosting a wedding party when the fire broke out. It was after several days of wildfires across the country, and the village, which had already been evacuated several times, had set up a WhatsApp group in order to coordinate news and details about future evacuations among residents.
The first fire occurred on Wednesday, says Ben Zvi, when Arab workers were preparing coffee under a tree, and the apparatus they were using inadvertently caused a brush fire that spread quickly and burned one home.
At the time, the community was ordered to evacuate, but Ben Zvi thought it was premature and stayed in her house, holing up in her bathroom. She did cancel a group of foreign journalists who were scheduled to come to Rama’s Kitchen as part of the Open Restaurants festival that was taking place in and around Jerusalem. On Thursday, though, she hosted another Open Restaurants group.
On Friday, she was meeting with her chef when the local fire officials told her to close the restaurant again, due to a blaze nearby, and leave. The wedding guests, who had just eaten dessert, dispersed, but Ben Zvi wasn’t planning on leaving. There were firefighting planes in the sky, and she figured they had things under control.
“The fire was at least five kilometers away,” she says, pointing over the charred tabletops and skeletons of metal chairs toward the hills beyond.
Rama was the only one who wasn’t taking it seriously. One of her daughters told her to grab anything of value from the house, and under duress she took family photos and a book that is dear to her.
Her friend and neighbor, a local fire official, warned her of the gravity of the situation and said, “Rama, get out of here,” she recalls. “I said I wasn’t going anywhere. He insisted, pushed me into the car, knowing that I would get in one door and leave by another. And he stood there, making sure I got in the car.”
It was only when Ben Zvi reached the bottom of the dirt road leading from the restaurant that she looked back and saw the fire, and realized how terribly right he had been.
“The winds are just so strong, eastern winds, and they just don’t stop,” she says. “The fire changed direction and started coming close to the restaurant. I saw a big tongue of fire coming toward the restaurant and I understood that was the end of Rama’s Kitchen.”
The restaurant burned up in just 10 minutes.
“The wind, you know, the fire moves so quickly, 50 kilometers an hour,” she says. “It’s not that it burned everything. You can see islands of green that the fire didn’t touch. It jumped and jumped and jumped. There’s one tree in the restaurant, and the fire touched the tree and the restaurant is all dry wood.”
Some of the restaurant’s Palestinian workers and several neighbors somehow saved Ben Zvi’s house, she says, pointing to the home, located a few feet from the restaurant.
“They saved Rama’s house,” she says. “I don’t know what they did, but the fire didn’t touch the house. Trees near the house were burned, but the house wasn’t touched.”
Ben Zvi’s husband was away when the tragedy struck — on his way to Switzerland. He quickly turned around and headed back.
In the meantime, Ben Zvi and her daughters, along with their Nataf neighbors, spent Friday night taking refuge in the nearby community of Yad Shmona, where they were each given a room in the village’s rooms for rent. Other locals came by with clothing, toothbrushes and dinner.
“The waves of support and the hugs helped,” Ben Zvi says. “The women just went door to door and, really, the support system is unbelievable.”
When she returned to Nataf on Sunday morning, little remained of the restaurant, save the brick oven used for baking breads. Everything else is a charred hull, and what isn’t burned is covered with a fine layer of white or reddish powder — remains of the substances used by the firefighters.
The garden store next door, co-owned by the Ben Zvis, was only partially burned. Here, the rows of herbs are covered with a fine coating of white from the firefighters’ hoses. Some plants were unscathed, the red flowers of succulents still bright and sharp, the green and white striped spider plants draped over the nearby planters.
“We’ll replant,” says one of the owners, her long, gray braid hanging over her shoulder. “See? Some of the plants are still alive. It’s a sign.”
It is Sunday afternoon in Nataf, and Ben Zvi has spent most of the day dealing with insurance agents and assessors, as they attempt to quickly put together the claim for the restaurant. There are more mundane details to deal with as well, like a new charger for her phone, and conversations with the many neighbors and strangers who come to offer support, and food.
She received a visit from President Reuven Rivlin earlier in the day, and says she was getting ready for that meeting when she was told that “Bibi was on the phone.”
The prime minister called to offer his condolences and reassure Ben Zvi that she would be reimbursed quickly because it was a terrorist attack, she says.
“You know, I’m just not this kind of person,” she says. “But Bibi told me they would move very fast. They just kept saying that it will be very fast so that people can recover very fast.”
Ben Zvi and her husband have lived in Nataf for 25 years, and opened Rama’s Kitchen 21 years ago.
“I’m strong, but I haven’t had a moment to myself,” she says. “I have no idea about anything now.”