More than 70 years after the last Spitfires of King Farouk’s Royal Egyptian Air Force were seen in the skies above Ashdod (then Isdud) and 40 years since Israel and Egypt signed a peace treaty, Egypt’s Air Force was back on Friday, this time for a different kind of fight with their former enemy.
Cairo came to Jerusalem’s aid, sending two Mi-8 transport helicopters to battle brush fires which broke out in Israel’s South.
While the Russian-produced helicopters are designed to transport service personnel or to carry cargo or weapons, they are also capable of carrying out search-and-rescue operations, and medevac and humanitarian missions.
This time, their mission was to assist in battling wildfires.
They joined some 1,000 firefighters from the National Fire and Rescue Authority battling some 1,023 fires which were wreaking havoc across the country, from the West Bank to Lake Kinneret in the North and around the Gaza border area.
The blazes, which were mostly caused by an extreme heatwave coupled with embers still burning from Lag Ba’omer fires, caused authorities to evacuated over 3,000 people and left dozens of families homeless after entire neighborhoods were engulfed by the flames.
While 50 homes were destroyed, there were no casualties reported.
Crews came from Greece, Croatia, Italy and Cyprus to battle the flames. The Palestinian Authority and Russia had also offered help to extinguish them.
But it was the Egyptian helicopters, which were filmed flying side-by-side next to Israeli police helicopters, which grabbed the attention of many.
While Egypt was not mentioned by the IDF as sending any sort of aid, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked “my friend the Egyptian president Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, for sending two helicopters.”
The two Egyptian Air Force Mi-8s, which were back in Israeli skies over the weekend, marked the first time since the War of Independence that Israelis saw such a site: two former enemies helping each other battle large fires close to the community of Beit Ezra near Ashdod.
Not far from the fire – a 15-minute drive away beside the Ad Halom interchange – is an obelisk made of red Egyptian granite with an inscription in four languages: English, Hebrew, Arabic and hieroglyphics. It is a memorial to Egyptian soldiers who died during the War of Independence in 1948.
Did the Egyptians come to make sure their monument would remain unscathed by the fire?
During the deadly 2010 Carmel Forest Fires, Cairo under the rule of former strongman Hosni Mubarak had also offered support to battle the blazes. But no aid came.
Nine years later under Sisi, however, the two Mi-8s came.
While the military censor has restricted reports of cooperation between the two countries, according to foreign reports Israel has operated beyond its borders to thwart the smuggling of rockets into the blockaded Gaza Strip, reportedly working with Egyptian forces in the Sinai Peninsula.
Israel has a 240-km. border with the restive peninsula, and Cairo and Jerusalem have been reported to have been closely cooperating in the fight against militants since Sisi rose to power.
In January, CBS News aired an interview with Sisi in which he said that military cooperation between Egypt and Israel has reached “unprecedented levels” in the Sinai Peninsula.
When asked by CBS if this security cooperation with Israel was the closest ever between the two countries that once were enemies, he said: “That is correct... We have a wide range of cooperation with the Israelis.”
Cairo is also the main negotiator between Israel and terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip, bringing the two sides to make ceasefire agreements every time another round of violence breaks out.
So 71 years after Egyptian aircraft fought against Israeli and overseas volunteer pilots, it’s likely that the support and cooperation between the two countries will only expand.