Palestinian firefighters help Israel battle Jerusalem-area blazes

Gantz, Lapid thank Ramallah as it sends 20 firefighters and four fire trucks to assist on third day of wildfires that forced thousands to flee their homes

Firefighters try to extinguish a fire near moshav Givat Ye'arim, near Jerusalem, on August 16, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Firefighters try to extinguish a fire near moshav Givat Ye'arim, near Jerusalem, on August 16, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The Palestinian Authority sent four firefighting teams to assist Israeli first responders on Tuesday, as fires continued to burn in the Jerusalem hills for the third consecutive day.

Four Palestinian Civil Defense trucks and 20 firefighters joined the efforts to put out the flames, which have raged across hills and towns west of Jerusalem since Sunday. The wildfires have been the largest in years.

Lt. Col. Nael Azza, a spokesperson for the Palestinian Civil Defense, said it was the fourth time in recent years that Palestinian firefighters had joined with Israelis to respond to an evolving disaster.

In 2010, 21 Palestinian Civil Defense firefighters helped Israel beat back one of the greatest civil disasters in its history — the Carmel forest fires, which claimed 44 lives and torched over 20 square miles.

By Tuesday, the fires were mostly under control, but crews were still working to put out flames in various locations.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz thanked Ramallah for sending the trucks, emphasizing that it was done at the PA’s initiative. Israel had issued a request for international aid in fighting the fires from several countries. The PA was not on that list.

“I would like to thank Palestinian Authority chairman Mahmoud Abbas for his initiative to send firefighters to assist Israel today. Mutual aid and saving human lives are a common interest for us all,” Gantz wrote on Twitter.

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid later tweeted out a similar message praising the Palestinian efforts to help Israel fight the fires.

“Palestinian firefighters on their way to help put out the fires in the Jerusalem hills. Thank you for your cooperation! We appreciate it,” Lapid said.

A spokesperson for Abbas’s office could not be reached for comment.

As recently as a decade ago, Palestinians would occasionally see Israeli first responders entering their West Bank areas to snuff out wildfires, Azza said.

“The Palestinian Civil Defense had more limited capabilities back then, and so there would have to be intervention by Israeli firefighters…But over the past five years, we’ve seen the Civil Defense become stronger,” Azza said.

Israeli and Palestinian firefighters have performed joint training exercises, such as a 2019 training session in Jenin. Teams from both sides performed over 10 such exercises in 2019.

According to Azza, such joint sessions have not taken place recently. But Azza added that just as Ramallah had extended aid to Israel, it would not hesitate to ask Israel, among other countries, for help in the event of disaster.

“If we needed urgent aid in the event of a disaster, we would ask those who neighbor us. This isn’t because they’re superior in some way, but because they’re right next to us — Jordan and Israel,” Azza said.

The new Israeli government, especially Gantz and Lapid, have pushed for a reset in ties with the Palestinian Authority. Last month, Gantz and Abbas spoke on the phone in the first public high-level civilian contact between Ramallah and Jerusalem since 2017.

In the subsequent weeks, Abbas spoke with another Israeli minister and two other Palestinian ministers met their Israeli counterparts. Gantz has said he hopes to strengthen the Palestinian Authority as an alternative to the Hamas terror group, whose popularity among Palestinians has spiked dramatically since its May battle with Israel.

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