Israelis, Jordanians, Palestinians find a common enemy: Natural disasters
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Israelis, Jordanians, Palestinians find a common enemy: Natural disasters

Emergency response teams from around the world work together in EU-sponsored exercise on fighting forest fires, earthquakes

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

  • Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan takes part in a situational assessment meeting during an international natural disaster preparedness exercise in central Israel on October 24, 2017. (Fire and Rescue Authority)
    Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan takes part in a situational assessment meeting during an international natural disaster preparedness exercise in central Israel on October 24, 2017. (Fire and Rescue Authority)
  • Firefighting planes puts out a simulated blaze as part of an international natural disaster preparedness exercise in central Israel on October 24, 2017. (Fire and Rescue Authority)
    Firefighting planes puts out a simulated blaze as part of an international natural disaster preparedness exercise in central Israel on October 24, 2017. (Fire and Rescue Authority)
  • An Israeli firefighter puts out a blaze as part of an international natural disaster preparedness exercise in central Israel on October 24, 2017. (Fire and Rescue Authority)
    An Israeli firefighter puts out a blaze as part of an international natural disaster preparedness exercise in central Israel on October 24, 2017. (Fire and Rescue Authority)
  • An Israeli firefighter directs a fire engine during an international natural disaster preparedness exercise in central Israel on October 24, 2017. (Fire and Rescue Authority)
    An Israeli firefighter directs a fire engine during an international natural disaster preparedness exercise in central Israel on October 24, 2017. (Fire and Rescue Authority)
  • An Israeli firefighter puts out a blaze as part of an international natural disaster preparedness exercise in central Israel on October 24, 2017. (Fire and Rescue Authority)
    An Israeli firefighter puts out a blaze as part of an international natural disaster preparedness exercise in central Israel on October 24, 2017. (Fire and Rescue Authority)
  • IDF Home Front Command soldiers take part in an international natural disaster preparedness exercise in southern Israel on October 25, 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)
    IDF Home Front Command soldiers take part in an international natural disaster preparedness exercise in southern Israel on October 25, 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)
  • IDF Home Front Command soldiers, working alongside search and rescue personnel from Jordan, Spain and the Palestinian Authority, take part in an international natural disaster preparedness exercise in southern Israel on October 25, 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)
    IDF Home Front Command soldiers, working alongside search and rescue personnel from Jordan, Spain and the Palestinian Authority, take part in an international natural disaster preparedness exercise in southern Israel on October 25, 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)
  • IDF Home Front Command soldiers, working alongside search and rescue personnel from Jordan, Spain and the Palestinian Authority, take part in an international natural disaster preparedness exercise in southern Israel on October 25, 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)
    IDF Home Front Command soldiers, working alongside search and rescue personnel from Jordan, Spain and the Palestinian Authority, take part in an international natural disaster preparedness exercise in southern Israel on October 25, 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)

Natural disasters have a nasty habit of not respecting lines drawn on a map. Forest fires can start in one country and end in another; earthquakes can wreak havoc on entire regions.

To prepare for those threats, emergency response teams from Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority, as well as Spain, Italy and France, gathered in the Jewish state this week to learn how to work together and swap techniques, as part of an exercise sponsored by the European Union.

The exercise was dubbed “Middle East Forest Fires” — something of a misnomer as earthquakes, as well as blazes, were simulated.

Members of the Israeli and Palestinian rescue teams participating in a natural disaster preparedness exercise on October 24, 2017. (Foreign Ministry)

The simulated massive forest fire spread throughout Israel, the West Bank and Jordan, requiring teams from Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority to work together with help from European nations, according to Israel’s Foreign Ministry.

“The scenario is that a large fire breaks out and develops into a regional disaster. The blaze is then joined by additional disasters, going from one country to its neighbor,” according to the ministry’s statement.

Yoram Levi, spokesperson for Israel’s Fire and Rescue Authority, said the firefighting aspect of the exercise took place in two locations, in the Lahav forest northeast of Beersheba, and in a forest near Amatzia, southeast of Kiryat Gat.

In order to make the exercise more realistic, a number of small, contained blazes were lit in open fields near the forests, he said.

“There was a bit of fire, but with a lot of smoke,” Levi said.

Italian firefighters puts out a blaze as part of an international natural disaster preparedness exercise in central Israel on October 24, 2017. (Fire and Rescue Authority)

In addition, search and rescue teams from the IDF, Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Spain practiced responding to a massive earthquake, rescuing people trapped under the rubble, at an army base in southern Israel, said Lt. Col. Shlomi Ben-Yair. He commands the IDF Home Front Command’s Ram Battalion, which took part in the exercise.

“It’s a huge exercise,” Ben-Yair said. “We are practicing every aspect of a disaster.”

Over 400 emergency responders — approximately half of them Israeli — took part in the two-day exercise, which began on Tuesday.

On the Israeli side, in addition to the firefighters and Home Front Command soldiers, representatives from the Israel Police, Magen David Adom and other emergency response services were involved in the drill, which was organized by Israel’s National Emergency Authority.

Jordan sent firefighting aircraft, dozens of rescuers, fire engines and medical teams. The Palestinian Authority also sent dozens of firefighters and rescuers, as well as fire engines.

France, Italy and Spain each sent firefighters, medical teams and firefighting planes. Spain also sent a contingent of search and rescue personnel, who trained alongside Jordanian, Israeli and Palestinian teams.

The large-scale exercise took months to come together, with the initial planning sessions being held in both Jordan and Israel, Ben-Yair said.

The foreign crew arrived on Monday, getting settled in before starting the exercise on Tuesday morning.

Some of these emergency response teams have worked together in the past. Israeli and Palestinian firefighters, for instance, collaborated last year during a rash of fires — some of them set by arsonists — that blazed throughout the West Bank.

Croatia and Italy, which took part in this week’s exercise, were also involved in the firefighting efforts during the intense period of forest fires last November.

But for some teams, it was their first time working together.

IDF Home Front Command soldiers, working alongside search and rescue personnel from Jordan, Spain and the Palestinian Authority, take part in an international natural disaster preparedness exercise in southern Israel on October 25, 2017. (Israel Defense Forces)

Ben-Yair, who coordinated the exercise at the Home Front Command’s Zikim base in southern Israel, said this was his first time working alongside Palestinian search and rescue workers, though he had previously participated in exercises with Spain and Jordan.

Leading up to the exercise, soldiers on the Zikim base prepared a disaster site that was meant to replicate a building destroyed in an earthquake in which the teams could practice search and rescue operations, Ben-Yair said.

According to the IDF officer, one of the main challenges in international exercises like this one — and in the actual events — is a fundamental aspect of cooperation: language.

Israelis, of course, speak Hebrew; Jordanians, Arabic; and Spaniards, Spanish.

“We had to figure out a common language,” he said.

In most cases, that was English, “but there was still a good amount of Hebrew and Arabic,” he said. However, in the teams’ regular situational assessments, information had to be presented clearly and accurately, with no misunderstandings.

“So during meetings we translate into three languages, and it works, it works well,” Ben-Yair told The Times of Israel, speaking over the phone on the sidelines of the drill.

Cpt. Eden Illouz, a company commander in the Ram Battalion, said some of his soldiers also spoke Arabic and Spanish and were able to pitch in.

During most of the search and rescue missions, the teams were allowed to operate according to their own protocols, which allowed the others to watch and learn their techniques.

“We let them make their own decisions,” he said. “So the Jordanian commander, he gets to say, ‘You gave me this area, I’ll do it my way.”

But at the end of the exercise, the teams all worked together on one “summary drill,” Illouz said.

Ben-Yair, who was operating mostly from the command center, said he was struck by the fact that the differences between the teams were not in their rescue tactics, which he said were fairly universal, but in the overall management of the operation.

For instance, the Jordanians draw clear dividing lines in terms of roles, so the person in charge of bringing victims out of the rubble is not responsible for bringing them to the hospital or what happens to them while they are there. Whereas, Ben-Yair said that he, as battalion commander, was responsible for the entire process.

Meanwhile, Illouz, who was directing troops on the scene, found exactly the opposite, noticing differences in the specific tactics — the types of equipment used and the number of soldiers per team — but thinking the overall management was similar between the various nationalities.

“After all, it’s a pretty simple mission: save lives,” he said.

The exercise was scheduled to end on Wednesday afternoon with a ceremony near Beit Shemesh for everyone who took part, Illouz said.

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