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Israelis, Palestinians Rescue Crew

July 8, 1999 GMT

RAMALLAH, West Bank (AP) _ The teams sifted through the mangled concrete and twisted cables, shouting orders to each other in Hebrew, Arabic and English.

It was hard to tell who was who among the Palestinian and Israeli rescuers who raced Thursday to uncover construction workers trapped in the rubble of a collapsed four-story building.

The accident killed two men and injured nine. But the cooperation in rescuing the survivors inspired hope among soldiers and civilians alike for a peaceful future.

Just a few hours later, in a similar accident in Gaza, three Palestinian workers were killed when a wall collapsed on them, said city engineer Khalil Shaqura. The workers were renovating a building rented by the Palestinian telecommunications company.

The mid-morning crash in Ramallah prompted immediate assistance from Palestinian shopkeepers in town, Israeli troops across the border, and medical workers in a nearby Jewish settlements.

``Four years ago, I threw stones at these soldiers,″ said Abdel Halim Blebleh, covered with flour from the bakery he had abandoned hours before. ``And now they are helping me, and I am willing to shake hands with them.″

For some, it was hard to resist seeing the collaboration as a sign, just days after Israel swore in a new government dedicated to reviving peace talks with the Palestinians.

``We thank the Israelis very much,″ said Jamil Tarifi, the Palestinian local authorities minister, as he wiped away a cloud of dust. ``We hope that the new government will cooperate in the peace. Here people are cooperating very well.″

The tragedy prompted the first-ever phone call between the speakers of the two parliaments: Knesset speaker Avraham Burg called his Palestinian counterpart, Ahmed Qureia, to express his condolences.

Qureia thanked Burg for the assistance extended by the Israelis, and said he hoped the call marked the beginning of relations between the two legislatures.

Israel’s previous speaker, Dan Tichon, a hard-line Likud party member, had refused any contact with the Palestinians.

But even militant Jewish settlers, who bitterly oppose the land-for-peace concessions advocated by Israeli President Ehud Barak’s new government, were moved by the rescue scene.

``We are all, after all, human beings,″ said settler spokesman Aharon Domb, who said seven settler ambulances rushed to the scene.

Ambulances bearing red crescents and red stars of David hustled the injured to Palestinian and Israeli hospitals. Rescue workers carefully extracted partially buried workers from the rubble.

Then, the harrowing work of searching for wholly buried survivors began.

Israeli and Palestinian security officers dressed in olive-green uniforms with matching berets formed a human chain to lift hundreds of pounds of steel and concrete. The top floor had collapsed during construction.

Sniffer dogs trotted into the widening hole in the rubble. Palestinian onlookers climbed to the upper floors of the building to get a better glimpse.

``Everyone be quiet,″ yelled an Israeli rescue worker at one point. ``We want quiet to try to hear any voices from below.″

When a Palestinian repeated the order in Arabic, a great hush fell over the throngs of spectators. But no cry for help came.

After more than five hours of work, the Israeli commander confirmed the suspicions of the searchers: ``We have reached the bottom of the rubble and we haven’t found anyone,″ said Col. Gal Hirsch.

Smiling at each other, the Israeli soldiers with their M-16s and Palestinian police carrying Kalashnikovs scooped away the last bits of wreckage, piled their equipment on trucks and drove away.