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LOOKING up at the ghostly shell of Grenfell Tower, it’s sobering to think that only a year ago today the place was bustling with life, the light from the 120 odd flats of the 24-storey block could be seen from miles around.
Nestled close to the railway tracks of Latimer Road station, the tower’s looming presence has become a stark icon of Britain’s housing crisis and its voiceless victims.
A Palestinian delegation of firefighters have come to visit the burnt-out site and surrounding memorial. The delegation from Hebron fire service have been on a two-week training trip with the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) in Scotland and are rounding their trip off at Grenfell.
Since 1994, Hebron city has been divided into Hebron 1, under Palestinian control, and Hebron 2, under Israeli authority. This division led to Hebron opening two firefighter centres instead of one to cover the whole city.
The Palestinian delegation’s interpreter Belal Mohammad explains how firefighters in Palestine are forced to fight a constant battle against the existence of the checkpoints between Hebron 1 and 2 and the closure of the most vital street, Alshuhada. The road connecting the north and south of the city has been shut since 1994 and so makes responding to emergencies difficult.
“Lives are constantly being put at risk because we live under occupation. They stop us at checkpoints to carry out searches while we’re on route to a fire or emergency. They don’t rush, as they don’t care if Palestinians live or die.”
This is not the only problem Palestinian firefighters have to contend with. Shockingly, they are all required to fight fires dressed as they are with no protective gear.
There’s no funding for anything aside the most basic of kit and so they put their own lives in constant danger every time they are called out to fight a fire.
In response to this travesty, the FBU has over the years donated helmets and breathing apparatus to their Palestinian comrades. However, even these are met with strict security checks by the occupation at the borders.
“The helmets were checked to make sure they’re not bullet proof,” Mr Mohammad explains. “As soon as they confirmed they weren’t, they were sent through.
“With breathing apparatus they want to see if it can protect us from tear gas. Any other equipment deemed to offer protection during conflict would not be allowed through. They just want to make sure they can still kill us.”
Mr Mohammad explains that the problem with a lack of protective equipment is so bad in Palestine that in each fire that is responded to at least one firefighter will be injured, including from third degree burns, suffocation, fractures and falls.
Hebron fire service deals with hundreds of fires every year. Mr Mohammad recalls a particularly bad case was the burning of a factory for mattresses and sponge.
He recalls: “On that day, firefighters were unable to deal with the fire until the entire factory burned down totally as a result of the shortage of materials, especially fire engines.”
Hebron city’s population is around 300,000, but the fire service only has two trucks covering the entire city. The latest model is from the year 2000, making it 18 years old, and is becoming not fit for service.
In order to cover the whole city safely, Mr Mohammad argues, the service needs to have six new fire engines at least.
Justice for Grenfell campaign group director Judy Bolton was on hand to give a tour of the memorial to the Palestinian firefighters, who paid their respects to the victims and the firefighters who fought the devastating blaze.
They visited the main Wall Of Truth memorial, which is still covered with messages, poems and pictures from local residents and campaigners.
Ms Bolton said: “They wanted to come and see the site and were incredibly humbled by it. It’s very stark. They were very generous in spirit.
“I’m really honoured to have met them and certainly Grenfell is a lasting reminder of the importance of safety for all people, including firefighters.
“With the horrors going on in Palestine, they are only too familiar with having to respond to serious fires themselves.”
Mr Mohammad concurs. He highlighted one incident on February 25 2015, in which three children in Hebron city unnecessarily lost their lives in a fire inside their home caused by a faulty heater. This incident led to the training session with the FBU being set up.
“We believe the fire could have been prevented if we had had a hydraulic ladder and a rescue car available within the municipality area,” Mr Mohammad said.
“When firefighters arrived at the house, they were neither able to tackle the flames nor gain external access to the building as the flat is located in a building with eight floors.
“The affected flat is on the fourth floor. With appropriate equipment our firefighters would have been able to rescue the children by taking them out through the windows.”
FBU treasurer Lucy Masoud was among the UK firefighters tasked with training the Palestinians during their trip to Scotland.
“The union has been showing support and solidarity to our Palestinian comrades for many years,” she said. “They have nothing like our personal protective equipment (PPE) and so we have been donating equipment to them.
“At the same time, they need to know how to use the equipment we are giving them, so we are training them with this.
“They are amazing people, considering the horrendous conditions in which they are forced to work.”
Ms Masoud recalls how she has seen “first hand” the stops and checks on firefighters and equipment, which she condemned as preventing the saving of lives.
She said: “The fire or emergency may only be 10 metres up the road, but the IDF will purposely hold people up. We see this time again.”
FBU Palestinian support coordinator Jim Malone has been involved in facilitating training in Britain and delivering firefighting kit and equipment to Palestine, including Gaza, since 2009, when the project first started.
He recalls how they drove two fire engines across Europe in 2011 in an attempt to get them to Palestine, but one broke down in Greece and the other was impounded by the Israeli authorities before a successful campaign to get it released.
To this day the fire engine continues to serve Nablus and still has the Scottish Fire and Rescue Service badge.
More chilling is why the fire truck was impounded — because it was a right-hand drive. If an IDF soldier at a checkpoint wanted to shoot a driver he would be out of his fixed line of sight simply by sitting on the right side of the vehicle.
If you’re thinking that the IDF would never shoot the driver of an emergency vehicle, then think again. Mr Malone has met one of them. Palestinian firefighter Rabe’e Antar, who was shot in the shoulder while delivering water to a bombed-out hospital. “He still has a hole the size of a fist where the gunshot wound hit him,” Mr Malone said.
However, despite all the conflict, moments of hope and love are seen. Palestine sent 21 of its firefighters to help combat a huge forest fire on Mount Carmel in northern Israel in 2010 following a plea for international assistance. To this day the incident is the worst fire in Israel’s history, killing 44 people.
And there are day-to-day examples of co-operation between Israeli and Palestinian fire services at Jerusalem city’s central fire station.
Mr Malone explains how over the years the training sessions have normally served the Palestinian cities of Ramallah and Nablus but that Hebron Mayor Dr Dauod Zatari requested the union visit the city following the incident mentioned that killed three children.
“Hebron fire service is in the worst situation,” Mr Malone said. “The city has been cut in two and the firefighters have no kit, no breathing apparatus (BA) and they fight fires in their overalls, much to the detriment of their health and safety.”
He says the next training group will arrive tomorrow when Ramallah’s Palestinian civil defence service will come over for another two weeks.
However, this time around they will be trained as instructors. The long-term goal of the project is for Palestinians to train Palestinian firefighters, which would also save the trip to Scotland away from their families.
There is currently a training centre in Jericho, which Mr Malone argues would be the ideal venue for training in Palestine to take place.
Referring to Grenfell, Ms Bolton admits that the community is still reeling in shock following the catastrophic events.
She said: “I am still in disbelief that this happened. Through groups like Justice for Grenfell we will continue to fight and support the community so that we can get to the truth. But there can’t be a period of healing until there’s truth and justice.
“I work with a group of incredibly hard-working, loyal and compassionate women. We are not losing sight of the fact that there has to be a legacy for Grenfell. We hope that it will change policies not just in London but UK-wide, both in the standards of living and the quality of homes.
“We will be seeking to challenge the inquiry at every level, if necessary, to ensure the truth will come out.”
In an end to an emotional day, a Palestinian scarf was ceremonially tied at one of the memorials alongside an FBU t-shirt that read: ”We will never stop fighting for you. In unity. FBU.”
It is left to Mr Mohammad to have the final sentiment. “We Palestinians love peace and we love living in dignity and securing a good future for us and our children,” he said.
“We do not hate anyone, we look at everyone as a human being regardless of religion, race or colour and all we ask for is our freedom and an independent state.
“We have no problem living with Jews as a religion, but we don’t accept the occupation. I do not imagine that there is a person in the world accepts the occupation of his home and land and vital sources.
“We never give up and will always keep our hands on peace and always keep dreaming of a better future by the help our friends like Scottish people, FBU and all free men and women in the world.”
Will Stone is news editor for the Morning Star.
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