Lack of even the most basic firefighting equipment prompted the FBU to contact Palestinian firefighters several years ago. Now a new film traces what happened when one FBU member returned. William Murphy spoke to him.
The authorities in Israel had no problem with some FBU members flouting the Highway Code. The reason they gave for detaining a fire appliance at the port of Haifa was far more chilling. If a soldier at a checkpoint needed to shoot the driver of the vehicle, they explained, their fixed line of sight would be compromised by the driver being on the right.
It is common military practice in this part of the world for soldiers at checkpoints to have their weapons fixed on all approaching vehicles.
The weapon is sited to allow a clear shot on the driver of an approaching vehicle, which is why every vehicle on the road in Israel must be left hand drive. The right hand drive British appliance would have made a successful shot on target much more difficult.
In 2011, Jim Malone was part of a union delegation delivering an appliance and donated fire kit to the vastly under resourced firefighters of Palestine. The foam salvage tender appliance was driven from Dundee to Greece before being shipped to Haifa in Israel. The vehicle was held while soldiers considered the disadvantages of a right hand side driver, before finally agreeing entry.
“To get anything into Palestine, you need to go through Israel,” says Malone.
The ever-tense relationship between Israel and Palestine is one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. In 1967, the Six-Day War between the two ended with the Israelis occupying an area of land known as the West Bank that had until then been controlled by the Palestinians.
Today, the city of Nablus in the north of the West Bank, home to 120,000 people, has a working fire appliance courtesy of the FBU. It was eventually posted to the city’s central fire station after making it through the border.
Roll forward to 2015, four years after delivering it. The moment Malone sees his fire appliance again is captured in a new FBU-supported documentary, made by South Wales firefighter Ciaran Gibbons, Firefighters Under Occupation. It charts Malone’s return to Palestine and gives a unique insight into what life is like for a firefighter in the world’s longest running military occupation.
“A firefighter is a firefighter, no matter where they are in the world,” says Malone, who retired from the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service in 2013. “We’re here (in Palestine) to represent the FBU, show our humanitarian side, our internationalist side. We’re helping firefighters working under extremely difficult circumstances.”
Security restrictions mean Palestinian firefighters are regularly held up at checkpoints dotted across the land and searched by soldiers from the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) as part of strict security measures. These can even take place when crews are in the middle of responding to emergency calls and can involve firefighters being forced to strip to their underwear to check for hidden bombs. Coming under gunfire is not uncommon.
In one harrowing incident documented in the film, firefighter Rabe’e Antar recalls how he was shot in the shoulder by Israeli soldiers when his fire crew were delivering much needed water to a hospital. At the time he remembers thinking “It’s all over”. Rabe’e survived his injuries, but the shrapnel wound on his right shoulder is a constant reminder of how close he came to death and of how, perhaps surprisingly, it had nothing to do with firefighting.
A lack of suitable equipment and resources has put the lives of other firefighters at risk. Watch manager Firas Mosmar has severe burns on his arms, hands and head after being caught in the backdraft tackling a fire in a storage unit.
Even with the supplies delivered by Malone, there is still a chronic shortage of personal protective equipment. Many of the Palestinian firefighters wear layered overalls when extinguishing fires. The lack of even the most basic equipment was what prompted the FBU to step in.
In recent years Malone has organised educational trips to the UK so that the Palestinian firefighters can develop their firefighting and rescue skills. Water rescue courses are amongst the most popular as Palestine, in spite of its hot, dry climate, is affected by frequent flash floods.
Firefighters Under Occupation is Gibbons’ second film. His first, 2014’s The Fight Game, won the best feature documentary award at the Carmarthen Bay Film Festival. The South Wales firefighter decided his follow-up should explore the conflict that had preoccupied him since childhood. During the eight-day shoot, Gibbons found a glimmer of hope in a conflict that never quite seems to have reached its nadir.
In 2010, when a huge fire broke out on Mount Carmel in northern Israel, the country’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu called for assistance from the international community. It was the worst fire in the nation’s history, killing 44 people. In response, Palestine sent 21 of its firefighters to the region to work alongside other international fire crews, including Israelis who commended their efforts.
Keen to hear directly from the firefighters on the other side, Gibbons travelled to Jerusalem and spoke to Ali Amouchi, a firefighter at the city’s central fire station. Each day, he says, Jewish and Palestinian firefighters co-operate and work with each other peacefully. He says this should inspire hope that the region could find a lasting peace.
“If we step back from politics a bit, in the end we are all human beings,” he concludes.
- Find screenings of the film near you at: facebook.com/FirefightersUnderOccupation