In October/November 2009, 8 firefighters from the West Bank city of Nablus came to the UK on a visit organised by the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and at the invitation of the Scottish Government. The Nablus Fire Department, founded in 1958, is unique in Palestine as a Municipal Fire Department (not Civil Defence) and is funded and controlled by the Nablus Municipality.
The visit, funded in the main by donation and sponsorship, was the culmination of months of planning following several visits by FBU officials to the area where it became apparent that the Nablus firefighters were severely handicapped by lack of equipment (particularly Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)) and lack of training.
Here in the UK training lasted 4 weeks (3 weeks in Scotland and 1 week in NW England) and covered those areas requested by the Nablus firefighters – namely Road Traffic Collisions, Compartment Fires, Urban Search and Rescue, Fire Investigations and ‘Train the Trainers’, the latter a course designed to give sustainability to the programme by enabling the firefighters back in Nablus to receive the same training from their peers.
In addition to all this intensive training many visits were included in the itinerary, some of them even by way of rest and relaxation. Therefore as well as visits to the Scottish Parliament, the STUC General Council, the STUC Womens Conference and the FBU national school, the firefighters were also hosted by Dundee City Council, the Lord Mayors of Manchester and Bolton, watched football matches at Celtic Park and Tannadice (Dundee) and visited Manchester United football ground.
The visit finished with two days sightseeing in London but also included a visit to the Houses of Parliament where they were greeted by Jeremy Corbyn MP, who in the Queens speech debate the following Monday, made reference to the visit and requested a meeting with the Minister to ensure the supply of necessary lifesaving equipment(including PPE) be supported by the UK Government.
However, and as talked about by them all, those parts of the visit which left them humbled, if not speechless, were the visits to the various Palestine support groups; whether Friends of Palestine in Dundee, Liverpool and Manchester or when coming upon the Glasgow Palestine Human Rights Campaign stall. It was when speaking to people at all these venues that the strength and depth of support was there for all to see.
So what was taken back to Nablus? Well, as well as the new found Fire and Rescue techniques, along with copious training manuals and presentations, and as well as the numerous gifts from many dignitaries and organisations, taken back was the clear understanding that, amongst many ordinary people at least, the struggle for justice for the Palestinian people has widespread support here in the UK.