The story almost got lost among the clouds of smoke billowing across northern Israel during Hanukkah of 2010. Among the hundreds of firefighters from around the world who came to offer assistance to Israel during the tragic Carmel Fire, 19 were volunteers from the Palestinian territories who fought hard for the right to assist in Israel.
The fire ultimately killed 44 people as it blazed for 77 hours. There was so much going on that the presence of Palestinian firefighters was one blip in the news cycle, a shot of four red fire trucks leaving the checkpoint on their way to fight the fire.
The Carmel Fire of 2010 was also an exercise in humility for Israel. The country rarely finds itself on the receiving end of international disaster aid. The incongruity was highlighted even further in this instance, because the Palestinians were the ones providing the assistance.
Three years after the fire, Israeli and Palestinian documentary filmmakers released a new documentary about the Palestinian firefighters called “Fire Lines.” Though the movie was released almost a year ago, it is now available online for free.
“This moment in time required stepping out of political and historical roles,” said Avi Goldstein, a Jewish-American documentary filmmaker. “[We wanted to explore] why it meant so much to them and why it was worth doing.” Co-producer David Viola heard about the firefighters’ cooperation from his brother, who is a firefighter in New York.
Fighting fires together
The 19 firefighters who assisted in the Carmel Fire are from Bethlehem, Ramallah and Jenin. As soon as they heard about the fire, they offered their help, but Israeli security forces turned them down because, they said, they wouldn’t be able to spare soldiers to supervise them. On the third morning of the fire, the Israelis changed their mind. Within four hours, the 19 Palestinian firefighters were packed and on their way to the Carmel Forest.
For many, it was their first time out of the West Bank in over a decade. One young firefighter said it was the first time he ever saw the sea. They were worried about receiving the correct permits to enter Israel, but all of them received permits without issue, even one who had served time in an Israeli jail.
When the Palestinian firefighters came home, some worried if they would be perceived as aiding the enemy. But they were feted as heroes
The documentary delves into the story of cooperation between the Israeli and Palestinian firefighting forces. It explores the anxiety and distrust on the Israeli side, officials who were overwhelmed by fighting a fire and unsure if adding Palestinians to the mix would make the situation even more unstable, but who expressed deep gratitude for the offer and later, for the assistance.
On the Palestinian side, the firefighters sat and waited, watching the footage on the news and feeling frustrated that they were unable to help.
“As a firefighter, I felt I should be there,” said one Palestinian firefighter. This helplessness later turned to pride when they came to Israel’s aid representing the entire would-be country of Palestine. When the firefighters came home, some worried if they would be perceived as aiding the enemy. But they were feted as heroes, both within the Palestinian territories and, to a lesser extent, in Israel.
“We set out to tell the story of this episode as a moment in time, because it seemed interesting in terms of breaking some of the assumptions,” said Goldstein. “We wanted to show that theme of brotherhood of the firefighters, of a truly global community of values. Both the Palestinian and Israeli firefighters kept talking about the shared language and outlook that they have.”
The documentary strikes a careful balance, giving ample time to concerns on both sides of the conflict. Much of the footage of the Palestinians fighting the actual fire was shot by the firefighters themselves on cellphone cameras, giving the documentary an edgy and immediate feel.
But the story is ultimately about one example of institutional cooperation between Palestinians and Israelis on a civil service level. One of the most surprising moments of the film is when the Palestinians show up with their state-of-the-art fire trucks.
The Israelis were shocked to see such advanced equipment, and most Palestinians also had no idea their firefighters were so well-equipped, said Suheir Rasul, the Palestinian-American co-director of the Jerusalem office of Search for Common Ground, which co-produced the film.
“Even as a Palestinian in the West Bank, I didn’t know our civil defense was that advanced,” said Rasul. The United States’ Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs Department was one of the major donor for the fire trucks, Rasul said.
“It almost sounds patronizing, like, ‘whoa! They’ve got good fire trucks!” added Goldstein. “But it shows that civil infrastructure is working every day to try to make life work.” Rasul and Goldstein both pointed out that this is an example of the positive stories in the territories getting lost in the relentless cycle of conflict-focused news.
The film was produced by Ma’an Network, an independent Palestinian news organization based in Bethlehem, and the Search for Common Ground, an international organization that operates in 36 countries. Search for Common Ground organized a number of screenings over the past year, including community centers and private homes in Israel. They also showed the film at two Palestinian universities as well as Ramallah, Hebron and a refugee camp in Bethlehem. Some Palestinian Authority officials have also attended screenings. And Ma’an has broadcast the documentary six times on its television channel.
Although some of the screenings happened at a politically sensitive time directly following the Israel-Hamas war this summer, Rasul said the response was overwhelmingly positive and proud. “Even the PA officials, they were very open,” said Rasul. “For them, it was, ‘yes, we do cooperate institutionally, this is not a new concept.’”
The power of the film comes in the last 10 minutes, when (spoiler alert) the Palestinian firefighters are invited to a ceremony honoring all of the firefighters in the Druze village Usifiyya in northern Israel. Twelve of the firefighters wanted to attend, but when they arrived at the checkpoint to cross into northern Israel, only seven had received permits. Furious, the firefighters turn around and go home.
‘We wanted to show that theme of brotherhood of the firefighters, of a truly global community of values’
The Israeli side was furious as well, and organizers canceled the entire ceremony in protest. That moment is important for both sides. It yanks the happy coexistence theme of the documentary squarely back into reality, where the situation is far from perfect. For Israelis, it helps them understand what it’s like to come to a checkpoint and get denied. For Palestinian audiences, the anger on the Israeli side over the denial of the permits was surprising and also welcome.
“Palestinians respected the fact that the chief [Israeli] fire investigator said it was a shame and a disgrace and should have never happened, that he publicly said that,” said Rasul. “Palestinians took that as a hopeful sign. You have to look at it in whole context. We’re used to being denied permits, but to have Israeli officials saying it was a shame and a disgrace, that meant a lot… [This acknowledgement] was something the audiences talked about a lot.”
Goldstein said the permit denial episode was the most honest way to end the documentary. “Does it feel negative? It’s not the hands raised, joyful cooperation feeling that we would have had if we had ended earlier,” he said. “But that’s where it ended, that was the final taste for the firefighters.
“We followed the ups and downs of reality. There were hopeful moments, but those moments of hope and possibility tumble very quickly, there’s a step forward and a step back. In telling the story, we thought the story reflected this rollercoaster. It felt realistic to us and it’s true to what happened.”
You can watch Fire Lines online here.