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Natural disaster drill makes for seemingly unnatural Middle East cooperation

The late-October emergency exercise in southern Israel involving rescue forces from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Spain. Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit.
The late-October emergency exercise in southern Israel involving rescue forces from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Spain. Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit.

When the words Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Jordan appear in the same sentence, the story usually involves security or diplomatic developments in the volatile Middle East.

But away from the daily headlines, these three Middle Eastern neighbors, as well as Spain, recently did something unusual together that has nothing to do with regional controversies.

In late October, rescue forces from Israel, the PA, Jordan and Spain convened in southern Israel for a joint national emergency exercise.

Should a major disaster like an earthquake strike, Israel, the PA and Jordan have all reached quiet understandings that they will assist one another in saving lives, and that they will pool their responders together in the name of this goal.

These understandings are part of a regional dialogue that is ongoing, and which is based on practical, non-political matters—cooperation that would appear normal in other parts of the world, but which stands out in this region and its conflicts.

Capt. Eden Ilouz—a company commander in the Ra’am Battalion, one of four battalions in the IDF Home Front Command’s Search and Rescue Brigade—said that the exercise, called Middle East Forest Fire, was initiated by the European Union and lasted for two days. It took place in Zikim, north of the Gaza Strip. “We received rescue services from Jordan and Spain, and firefighters from the Palestinian Authority,” he told

The Search and Rescue Brigade is made up of infantry soldiers who could be conducting a security operation in one moment, and be called to a natural disaster site in the next.

During the recent exercise, the crews worked together, simulating the extraction of trapped people in collapsed buildings.

“The time it takes to arrive at the rescue site is of critical importance,” Ilouz said. “The faster the forces arrive, the better.”

Scenarios included a massive earthquake and a blast caused by a gas tank. Ilouz noted that a large earthquake “strikes our area once every 100 years. Responding to earthquakes is part of our annual training program. We have to be ready for any international-level disaster.”

It was the first time an exercise of this kind was held in Israel, Ilouz added.

Ilouz’s battalion is equipped with sonar sensors, mini cameras and sniffer dogs in order to track down trapped people. The unit also has technology enabling it to trace the location of individuals through their cellular signals.

“We gather details to find out who was in what room of the collapsed building,” Ilouz said. “We take design sketches of the structure from the municipality, and build up a picture of the situation.”

The drill, he said, was successful, though “of course there are lessons to learn.”

Describing the unusual experience of training with Jordanian and Palestinian counterparts, Ilouz said, “Politics was not on our mind. We were focused on saving lives.”

Male and female soldiers serve together in the Home Front Command’s battalions. They spend seven months training as infantry soldiers, before receiving specialized rescue skills.

During routine times, they conduct “security missions in Judea and Samaria, defending all citizens,” Ilouz said. “We are ready to go anywhere for rescues in the country, or in the world,” the captain added.

Ilouz was part of the Israeli rescue delegation that provided assistance to Nepal after the country’s 2015 earthquake.

The battalions also train in responding to unconventional weapons attacks, though Ilouz said he could not provide further details on this aspect of their training.

Lt.-Col. Tal Rozin, commander of the Home Front Command School, said, “This was an intensive drill, and the goal of all who were there was to save lives.”

She said that “the challenge in the exercise is to create a common language among the foreign forces—when one wants to rescue a person from the rubble, there is a professional language involved, relating to the equipment, and to the order of steps that need to be taken on the ground.”

Thanks to training like this, the teams will be able to operate on the ground overseas, and also in Israel if needed, she added.

“The very fact that this exercise took place is a leap forward,” Rozin said, “and there is an understanding that our cooperation can only grow stronger.”

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