In the wake of the devastating floods earlier this week in Libya, the Palestinian Civil Defense Service, which operates under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority, announced that it was sending a 37-member team to assist with the humanitarian effort.
The team, which includes search-and-rescue experts and two neurosurgeons, set off on Wednesday, joining similar efforts that have been mobilized by other Arab countries and the international community more broadly. A cynic would be right to say that the Palestinian contribution is strongly motivated by political and image considerations, especially given Israel’s long-established reputation for offering safe, confident pairs of hands in responding to humanitarian disasters. But one can also acknowledge that since disasters do not recognize countries, borders and national identities, anyone in a position to provide assistance is obligated to do so, not least out of self-interest—the parties offering the aid could easily face a future crisis where they are the ones in need of it.
Nonetheless, Libya eschews Israeli assistance, unlike its neighbor, Morocco, where teams from the Israel Defense Forces, Magen David Adom, United Hatzalah, IsraAID and several smaller humanitarian agencies rushed to pitch in following the horrific earthquake that struck on Sept. 8, just days before Libya was flooded. Nearly 10,000 people have died so far in the combined toll from both North African countries, with thousands more missing or destitute—not because of war or terrorism, but because of structural and environmentally influenced catastrophes. A person facing such a dreadful situation is unlikely to turn down assistance, no matter where it comes from, but such an obvious realization has yet to dawn on much of the Middle East, where the notion of cooperation with Israel remains a taboo.
Ironically, Israel will have an indirect presence in Libya through the Palestinian emergency team, as the P.A.’s Civil Defense Service has benefited in the past from Israeli training, joint exercises and expertise, originally provided through the now moribund Oslo Accords. Back in October 2017, Nael al-Izza, spokesperson for the Civil Defense Service, efficiently summarized the reasons for such cooperation in an interview with Al Monitor. “As Palestinians, we have an interest in participating in such exercises because we have geographic links with Israel. If disasters occur or fires break out in Israel, we would be harmed,” he said. “The P.A., Israel and Jordan cannot face crises single-handedly.”
Al-Izza was speaking amid a joint exercise involving Palestinian, Jordanian and Israeli teams focused on fighting forest fires. One hub of the exercise—funded in part by the European Union and including firefighters from Spain, Italy and France—was in Hebron while the other was in Beersheva. In the recent past, al-Izza added, Israeli and Palestinian civil defense teams had also held several joint exercises on road safety, underpinned by the same practical logic. “The focus on coordination in road accidents stems from the Palestinians and Israelis use of the same roads and vehicles and facing the same risks,” he noted. “It is not possible to side with one party, religion or ethnicity at the expense of another when it comes to saving people’s lives.”
Amen to that last sentence, which could happily sit as the mission statement of any worthy humanitarian-aid agency. Yet the fire-fighting exercise drew howls of disgust from Palestinian hardliners and the antisemitic BDS movement targeting Israel alone. “Such projects give the impression that normal ties between Israelis and Palestinians under occupation are possible,” complained an official statement from the BDS movement, which went on to depict the word “normalization” (a desirable end that would permit uncomplicated regional cooperation) as equivalent to an expletive.
I readily concede that it would be both unrealistic and unnecessary to demand that political conflicts are buried in the name of regional humanitarianism. Unrealistic, because clashing senses of history, memory and ideology still drive the Palestinian objection to Israel’s existence; unnecessary, because while precisely these factors have frustrated every effort to find a permanent solution, that shouldn’t obstruct less lofty yet much-needed practical cooperation on specific challenges, most of all natural disasters, which we can sadly, if confidently, predict will be a consistent feature of life in the Mideast and North Africa from hereon in.
With that in mind, I want to suggest what I’d call an exemption clause. When it comes to natural disasters—as distinct from matters of trade, cultural exchange, diplomatic relations and so on—all countries from the region, including Israel, should agree that political considerations will not, under any circumstances, prevent a nation in the region from providing aid. If Palestinian fire-fighting teams are able and willing to assist in extinguishing forest fires in Israel, as they did in 2015, then they should do so. If Israeli rescue teams are able and willing to provide assistance in Morocco and Turkey, as they have done there and in so many other locations, then they should continue as such.
In the spirit of “Doctors Without Borders,” we should be advocating—certainly, in the context of environmental disasters—for “Israelis Without Borders,” and Palestinians, Jordanians, Turks, Egyptians, Omanis, Kurds without borders as well. The horrors we have seen in North Africa in the course of this month demand no less.
A proposal like this would, I am sure, meet with a positive response from the European Union, the United States and perhaps even the United Nations. But for the exemption clause to work, those implementing it would need to be careful not to overstep the mark by using the regional cooperation it would enable to secure political goals. In other words, this needs to be humanitarian assistance utterly disconnected from other regional imperatives. It would have only one objective: to provide the best and speediest assistance possible to the victims and those languishing in the aftermath. Therapists, doctors, water specialists, trauma experts, search-and-rescue teams and sniffer dogs are all needed. Politicians are not.