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Palestinians dispatch reinforcements in fight against Israel blaze

Dec. 5, 2010 1:49 P.M. (Updated: Dec. 6, 2010 5:04 P.M.)
BETHLEHEM (Ma’an) -- More Palestinian firefighters on Sunday joined their colleagues battling a massive wildfire that killed several dozen Israelis and sparked an unprecedented global response.

Bethlehem's civil defense chief Ibrahim Ayish told Ma'an that 21 men from the West Bank and four fully equipped fire engines were assisting Israeli and international forces trying to control the blaze near Haifa.

The latest civil defense unit to depart the West Bank left at 4 a.m. and arrived at northern Israel five hours later, Ayish said.

"We're working alongside the Israeli team, which knows the area very well," he says. "We were received respectfully. After all, we're dealing with a humanitarian crisis which knows no borders.

"Neither walls nor checkpoints will stop us."

Centered in Carmel, south and east of Haifa, the fire is the biggest inferno in Israel's 62-year history. So far, it has taken 41 lives and forced more than 17,000 people to flee their homes.

Police have arrested two youths from the Druze Israeli village of Isfiya on suspicion of starting the fire "through negligence" by leaving behind burning embers after a family picnic.

The blaze has so far ravaged at least 5,000 hectares of land and five million trees in the pine-covered hills known locally as "little Switzerland."

The three Palestinian units work in a zone made up of local and international ground units as well as aircraft, which are playing the largest role. Field crews control the small fires.

How does commander Ayish feel about the unusual mission? "Proud to participate in the humanitarian work of firefighting," he said, defining it as "the work of protecting the environment and nature."

Ayish expects the job to take another 24 hours. Unfortunately, he said, vast areas have turned to dust.

He said the orders came directly from President Mahmoud Abbas.

In Jerusalem, Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday telephoned the president to express his gratitude to the Palestinian Authority for its assistance to Israel's exhausted front.

Abbas, speaking with the premier for the first time since peace talks broke down in September, responded that "in such a situation, the Palestinian people will not hesitate to offer humanitarian support."

The PA stands ready to offer any additional assistance as needed, Abbas' office affirmed.

In Gaza City, the Prime Minister of the Gaza government Ismail Haniyeh told reporters "those fires are divine strikes for what they [Israel] did," the German Press Agency reported.

Haniyeh made the statement as he joined emergency prayers asking for rain to end a long dry season in the Palestinian territories.

The spiritual leader of Israel's religious Shas party also blamed divine retribution.

"Fires only happen in a place where Shabbat is desecrated," Rabbi Obadia Yosef said in his weekly sermon, according to The Jerusalem Post. "Homes were ruined ... entire neighborhoods wiped out, and it is not arbitrary. It is all divine providence," he said.

“We must repent, keep Shabbat appropriately. When the People of Israel repent, God safeguards them with a wall of fire,” but not of the incinerating type, Yosef added.

US supertanker joins air war on blaze

Meanwhile, the world's biggest firefighting plane joined the international offensive, dumping tons of water and chemicals on the flames.

Despite fires sweeping hills around the northern city of Haifa for a fourth day, hopes were high that the arrival in Israel of the chartered Boeing Supertanker would finally tip the balance.

The Israeli military said that the plane's US crew had been joined by two Israeli air force pilots and a base commander, acting as liaison.

Police appealed to residents in the target area to stay indoors and shut their windows as the behemoth dropped its payload of 76,000 liters of water and flame retardant.

More than 30 firefighting aircraft were flying sorties over the forest and scrub early Sunday, Israeli media reported. The military said aircraft from Greece, Britain, Turkey, Russia and France were already in action. Switzerland, the Netherlands, Azerbaijan and Romania were due fly in assistance on Sunday.

Israeli fire service operations officer Boaz Rakia was cautiously upbeat.

"We wake up this morning to a slightly more optimistic morning," he told army radio. "It's true that there are a number of sites where the fire is still active and we are concentrating our efforts there, but generally speaking if you look at the whole area of operations, it's better, more optimistic."

Meteorologists say rain is expected Sunday night or Monday.

AFP contributed to this report.
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