RAMALLAH, West Bank — Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian rescuers worked together on Aug. 19 to put out a fire engulfing a transfer truck at the Allenby Bridge crossing between Jordan and the West Bank. Four days earlier on the West Bank, in Qalqilya, paramedics from Israel's Magen David Adom and Palestinian Red Crescent and other first responders had taken part in a road accident exercise, which was capped to the surprise of many by the release of a joint photo of all those involved.
The Israeli Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories also released a video Aug. 15 of the latter exercise in which Israeli Fire Chief Ido Peretz remarked, “[This exercise] is part of the ongoing coordination between the Israeli and Palestinian rescue forces. Today, we had a practical encounter on the ground for rescuing people trapped in their car and extinguishing a car fire. Our encounters stem from their necessity on the ground, as we often meet on the roads when there is a car accident. As the years have passed, we have learned that cooperation is important, and this is increasingly tangible every time we are on the ground. I hope things continue in this way.”
Nael al-Azza, director of public and media relations for Palestinian Civil Defense (PCD), seconded Peretz's statement, telling Al-Monitor, “The latest exercise is a continuation of a series of exercises conducted by the Palestinian and Israeli civil defense agencies for handling road accidents.”
The two sides had agreed to step up joint exercises, Azza explained, following a traffic accident in June 2017 involving a Palestinian taxi and a bus of settlers that killed a woman, her five children and the taxi driver in Ramallah. Before that, joint exercises were only conducted intermittently and irregularly. Following the Ramallah tragedy, the two agencies conducted a major rescue exercise on July 4, 2017, in Barta'a, which straddles the Green Line, involving a simulated road accident. Azza said that agencies had also conducted a joint exercise in March in Jericho involving a vehicle collision and car fire.
According to the Palestinian Civil Police Force’s annual report released Feb. 11, on the West Bank there had been an increase in 2017 in the number of road accidents, but fewer deaths from them, compared to the year before, with 10,630 accidents killing 159 people in 2016 versus 11,500 traffic accidents killing 108 people in 2017. Police spokesman Louay Zreikat told Al-Monitor that from early 2018 through mid-August, 82 people were killed in car accidents, emphasizing that 70% of the incidents were on highways.
Azza explained that the Israeli-Palestinian joint exercises help the parties become familiar with how the other operates. “The work principles and mechanisms we apply are different from those of Israeli Civil Defense, which has caused confusion on the ground,” he said. “Thus, the joint exercises produce a better understanding among responders and better responses to traffic accidents.”
Azza stated, “More than 80 members of the Palestinian Civil Defense have taken part in a series of exercises for handling road accidents since June 2017.” He said the exercises are carried out in the presence of a representative of the Palestinian Military Liaison. The PCD falls under the Palestinian Security Services, which is under the Interior Ministry. The exercises, focusing on the use of various equipment and techniques, are coordinated by the Palestinian Military Liaison and the Israeli civil administration's District Coordination Liaison.
For the PCD, Azza said, road accidents rank fourth in order of hazard, following earthquakes, snowstorms and forest fires. The PCD has conducted joint exercises involving each scenario. Whereas handling road exercises tends to be a bilateral effort, exercises in the cases of earthquakes, fire and other natural disasters are regional response projects.
Middle East Forest Fires, a major exercise, was conducted Oct. 24-25, 2017, between Hebron, in the West Bank, and Beersheba, in Israel. More than 400 firefighters and rescuers from Jordan, Israel, the PA, Spain, Italy and France participated in responding to wildfires. The exercise also included reacting to an earthquake scenario focusing on regional response coordination and cooperation among civil defense teams in the provision of humanitarian aid. The objectives included better sharing of information, saving lives, including by avoiding discrimination, and preserving nature.
The Palestinian BDS National Committee had criticized Middle East Forest Fires for the Palestinian and Jordanian civil defense agencies cooperating with Israeli agencies, claiming the exercise was not urgent or necessary.
In response to the criticism, Azza replied, “Any response in the case of disaster should not be perceived to be normalization. We seek to save the injured, regardless of their nationality or the current political conditions.” He stated that the same approach applies to car accidents, noting that when a Palestinian places an emergency call, a Palestinian team responds to an accident, but an Israeli rescue team might respond as well.
Azza asserted, “Traffic collisions between Palestinian and Israeli cars can happen at any time on the highways,” which are under Israeli control. “Accidents should be handled in a way that will help save the injured, regardless of their nationality.”