- Associated Press - Tuesday, December 14, 2010

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel barred a group of Palestinian firefighters who helped battle the country’s worst wildfire from attending a ceremony in their honor Tuesday, the latest in a series of embarrassments over Israel’s handling of the blaze.

Eleven Palestinians were invited to attend the event in northern Israel, where the fire raged earlier this month.

Israeli Arab lawmaker Ahmad Tibi, one of the event’s organizers, said the fete was called off when three of the Palestinians were refused entry.

Palestinian fire chief Ahmed Rizek, whose permit arrived too late for him to attend, said entry refusals for no apparent reason were routine — an example of what West Bank Palestinians put up with daily.

About 20 Palestinian firefighters joined the international effort against the blaze that killed 43 people as it swept through the Carmel forest in Israel’s north, the biggest forest fire Israel has ever seen. In the end, firefighting aircraft and crews from abroad helped put it out.

Tuesday’s ceremony was set to take place in Usfiya, an Israeli Arab town near to where the blaze erupted, and the Palestinian firefighters were to be awarded certificates at the event.

The cancellation was an embarrassment to Israel at a time when its leaders insist they want to negotiate a peace deal with the Palestinians, and called into question the effectiveness of Israeli security measures.

Palestinians need permits to enter Israel from the West Bank, and many complain that approval or rejection can be arbitrary.

Mr. Tibi said the military turned the firefighters away on security grounds.

“It’s a theater of the absurd. This is a regular day-to-day practice of the occupation, and it exposes its ugly face,” Mr. Tibi told the Associated Press.

The Israeli military said the slight was unintentional.

“The delay in handing out the permits occurred because of a technical error in coordination between the two sides,” military spokesman Maj. Guy Inbar said in a statement, adding that he “regretted the incident.”

By Tuesday evening, all permits were granted, the military said, but it was too late for the ceremony. Mr. Tibi said he was going to consult with the firefighters on whether to reschedule the event.

Palestinian Authority spokesman Ghassan Khatib said the incident reflected Israel’s mindset.

“The Israeli approach toward the Palestinians is about control rather than security,” Mr. Khatib said.

Mr. Rizek, the Palestinian fire service commander, appeared resigned to the reality.

“They (the military) told me there is a mistake and that they didn’t mean it,” Mr. Rizek said. “I am not upset. I can understand there is something wrong. I don’t know what it is, but I don’t think they meant it.”

Mr. Rizek attended a ceremony last week in Jerusalem at the official residence of Israel’s president in honor of foreign firefighters who helped put out the blaze.

Israelis harshly criticize their own government because their fire service was unprepared to extinguish the flames. The country doesn’t have a single fire extinguishing aircraft, and firefighting materials ran out shortly after the blaze began.

Israel had to appeal to other countries to assist in putting out the flames. The Palestinians were part of a number of foreign fire services that pitched in.

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