Coexistence community evacuated as fire erupts nearby

Police say blaze no longer threatening homes of Neve Shalom, west of Jerusalem, but residents still waiting for all clear to return home after overnight scare

A forest fire rages outside Neve Shalom, November 22, 2016. (Israel Police)
A forest fire rages outside Neve Shalom, November 22, 2016. (Israel Police)

Residents of Neve Shalom, a Jewish-Arab coexistence community in central Israel, were evacuated from their homes early Tuesday morning as a forest fire raged nearby.

Firefighters were battling the blaze, which had been buoyed by strong winds, with around 60 teams, 140 fire fighters and ten planes struggling to douse the flames.

Police said in a statement Tuesday morning while the flames were not completely under control, the “fire no longer poses a threat to the community.” The residents were allowed to return to their homes by noon.

There were no reported injuries or damage to homes as a result of the fire.

The fire started around midnight in a forested area outside the town, but at 4 a.m., the winds took a change of direction, putting the residents of Neve Shalom in immediate danger. They were swiftly evacuated.

“We didn’t even have enough take anything from home, not even a jacket,” Yasmin Alkalak, a resident of the endangered community, told Channel 2.

“They took us to an agricultural area near the community. We can see that everything is red and up in flames,” she added.

Some 250 people live in the small cooperative village set in the bucolic hills west of Jerusalem near the Latrun Monastery. Also called Wahat al-Salaam, the town is located in what was once no man’s land between Israel and the West Bank, and is meant to demonstrate the possibility of coexistence and residents work toward fostering understanding between Jews and Arabs.

The police went house to house to ensure no one was left inside their homes during the evacuation, according to a police statement.

A police command post has been set up outside at the entrance to the community.

Video sent by the police showed the flames were still burning through large areas of the forest near the small town.

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