Hatred still burns in shared peril of forest fire

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The Independent Online
LAST WEEK Mohammed Abu al-Hija saw a forest fire come to within 20 yards of the Arab village of Ein Hod, which he and his family have been rebuilding in the pinewoods of the Carmel mountains for 50 years.

"The flames moved through the forest at the speed of an express train, jumping from tree to tree," says Mr Abu Hija. Plastic window frames and blinds in houses closest to the fire began to melt, and the intense heat shrivelled the leaves of bushes in village gardens. Ein Hod, home to 200 Israeli Arabs, escaped only because a last-minute change in the direction of the wind.

Ein Hod, a cluster of 20 large houses on the side of a steep and, before the fire, heavily-wooded valley, has always teetered on the edge of destruction. Half a century ago its founders lived in fine stone houses in a village overlooking the Mediterranean, six miles away. Turned into refugees by Israeli forces, most of the Arabs from the original Ein Hod fled inland.

"We were driven from our old village in 1948," says Mr Abu Hija. "We hid here where my grandfather had shelters for sheep and goats." Israel turned the original village of Ein Hod into an artists' colony, where kitsch metallic sculptures now decorate its well-tended lawns. Meanwhile, five miles away in the woods, the Arabs began to rebuild.

The new Palestinian village of Ein Hod had no electricity and little water. Its existence was not recognised by the Israeli authorities, and its houses are always in danger of the bulldozer.

The area in which the village stands was declared a national park in 1971, with pines being planted to replace the villagers' olive trees. The only way to find Ein Hod in the forest is to look for pieces of paper pinned to pine trees, with the village's name hand-written in Arabic and an arrow giving the direction.

Ein Hod's fight for civil and economic rights became a symbol for a million Israeli Arabs. Mohammed Abu Hija is chairman of the Committee of Forty, which agitates for the recognition of some 40 Arab villages, inhabited by 90,000 people, to which the government supplies no water, electricity or transport. In 1994 Ein Hod finally won official recognition, only to see the present government freeze spending on the village.

Real relations between Israelis and Palestinians are forged in prolonged and bitter confrontations over land and political rights such as that at Ein Hod.

It is these quarrels which shape the way the two peoples look at each other, far more than high level summit meetings such as that between President Bill Clinton, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, and Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, at the Wye Plantation in Maryland this weekend.

The omens at Ein Hod are not good. The Arab village can still only be reached down a five-mile-long dirt track, which winds its way between the trees. These are now blackened by fire; half-way to the village is the burnt-out carcass of a hatchback car caught by the flames, though the driver and his wife and daughter managed to escape.

Israeli and Arab Ein Hod were both threatened by the fires, which raced through the forests on Mount Carmel over the past week.

But the common danger showed no sign of bringing people together. The Israeli media speculated about whether the fires were the result of Palestinian arsonists taking advantage of the dry weather and strong winds, but people in Arab Ein Hod angrily replied that it was unlikely that they would set fire to a forest in which they lived. The probable source of the blaze, they said, was a rubbish dump outside the nearby town of Daliat al-Carmel.

Samir Abu al-Hija, a journalist from the village who works for a newspaper in Nazareth, recalls that the police came on Monday as thick smoke began to billow through the village, and told everybody to leave.

"Twenty men decided to stay, while the women and children were to be evacuated, but the police only brought a single car," he said.

The next day the fire grew worse. At one moment three Israeli fire trucks arrived in Ein Hod to fill up with water, not realising that it has no mains supply.

Mohammed Abu Hija thought his life's work of re-establishing the village was about to go up in flames. "I ran to a gas tank to close it down in case of an explosion," he said. "It was already getting very hot. I went into my house to see what I could salvage before it caught fire, but I could not decide what to take, so I came out with nothing."

The villagers are convinced that the Israeli fire brigade did little to help them.

This may be true, but discrimination is probably not to blame. The powerful Israeli firefighters' union has, over the years, arranged for its members to work 10 days a month and get paid heavy overtime rates. New recruits are not welcome; Mr Abu Hija noticed that many of the fire truck drivers "were very old".

Arab Ein Hod now stands surrounded by blackened pines and burned brush, and some of the villagers attribute the shift in the wind which saved them to divine intervention. A neighbouring Israeli kibbutz at Nir Etzion suffered worse damage.

By the end of the week the fires had died down, but not the bitterness they created, with many Arabs in Ein Hod believing they had been left to burn and Israelis suspecting they had set the fires in the first place.