Editor’s Note: Jason Greenblatt is assistant to the President and special US representative for international negotiations. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author; view more opinion articles on CNN.
With the ongoing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, it is hard to imagine that deadly fires brought the two groups together – not once, but twice – in a display of shared humanity. Yet, in 2010 and again in 2016, Palestinians fought fires in northern Israel alongside their Israeli neighbors, saving lives and property.
During Hanukah 2010, a fire raged for 77 hours in northern Israel, consuming thousands of acres, endangering hundreds of lives and ultimately killing 44 people. Local Israeli firefighters in the region struggled to slow the spread of this historic fire. Israel’s Palestinian neighbors – from Bethlehem, Jenin and Ramallah – saw the emergency in northern Israel and offered their help.
Four fully equipped firetrucks with 19 trained Palestinian firefighters joined to face the deadly fire. These Palestinians, alongside their Israeli neighbors, held the line against the raging flames. Together (and with the help of 17 countries) they brought the fire under control and prevented further devastation.
Six years later, in November 2016, the Palestinians again came to their neighbor’s aid, when fires threatened central Israel.
These two examples offer a glimpse of what could one day be – and, frankly, what should be. And, today, Israelis and Palestinians have a chance to work together once more to address another deadly threat: Hamas.
Hamas is an Islamic fundamentalist terror organization, with funding from Iran, dedicated to the destruction of Israel. After winning 2006 elections and then battling the Palestinian Authority, it seized control of Gaza in 2007. The Hamas regime has fought multiple wars with Israel since that time and frequently clashes with Israel at the border.
Over the past several months, in addition to launching rocket attacks and building tunnels to attack Israel, Hamas has turned to new methods of attacks – most recently, turning kites and balloons into incendiary terror toys. Hamas ties small bundles of burning, oil-soaked rags or other flaming items to kites or balloons and releases them in the wind toward Israel. One of these kites even had a swastika on it.
Already, Hamas’ new weapons of choice have burned thousands of acres of land and caused millions of dollars of damage in southern Israel. On the other side of the border, their Israeli neighbors keep watch for incoming kites and rush to extinguish fires caused by toys that once symbolized joy.
Hamas’ intent is to cause as much damage to Israel as possible. But much like the indiscriminate destruction that their fires cause, Hamas has no regard for the widespread harm they are doing to Palestinians in Gaza. While Hamas focuses on violence toward their Israeli neighbors, they have neglected and utterly failed to build the infrastructure and systems to make life better in Gaza.
Imagine a region where Israelis and Palestinians work together to not only fight fires, but to build a better future for their respective people. My colleagues and I on the US peace team are driven by this vision. We believe that respect and cooperation between the two sides could lead to so many advancements and to a better life for all.
Israeli and Palestinian children deserve a future in which kites and balloons are simply toys, and they can call upon their neighbors in their hour of need.
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Hamas has chosen to weaponize fire in its persistent but futile effort to destroy Israel, driving hopes for peace further away. But, this is not the only path forward for the Palestinians in Gaza, nor must it be their future.
We hope the day will come when, instead of allowing their leadership to spread conflagrations that produce nothing but death, destruction and misery, Palestinians in Gaza can join Palestinians in the West Bank to help fight fires together with Israelis.
The question is: which path will the Palestinians in Gaza choose?
It is time to put out the fire and choose peace.