The fumes were spreading. A fire. It’s a fire! The female workers in this clandestine factory began to scream and rush for the windows. A young man carrying a carton of cigarette lighters stumbled into the main room and fainted from the smoke. He dropped his box.

It exploded.

Now flames were swallowing the entire building. There was no fire escape. The women were trapped. In the streets, the Palestinian firefighters arrived in old trucks with antiquated equipment. Even as they tried to spray water, it was clear that against this blaze — the worst in the West Bank city of Hebron in 30 years — they were overmatched.

They needed help.

They called the Israelis.

Now, to you that may seem perfectly normal, seeing as Hebron is a city in Israel. But it is also a site of tremendous conflict, a hotbed where violence between Arabs and Jews always has been intense and ugly.

Hebron is believed to be the birthplace of Abraham — revered by Jews and Muslims — and is thereby considered sacred to many different people.

Seventy years ago, Arabs massacred 67 Jews there. Five years ago, a Jewish settler gunned down 29 Muslim worshipers. An Arab teacher was once shot and killed over connecting Arab electricity to an Israeli system.

Bloodshed is no stranger to Hebron. Rock throwing, bullets, graffiti, gunfire, bombs — all part of the landscape.

But suddenly there was no time for that. Lives were at stake. Innocent lives. And the enemy was not politics or religion.

It was fire.

Israelis to the rescue

Within 10 minutes, fire trucks arrived from the nearby Israeli town of Kiryat Arba. So did Israeli ambulances. And together the opposing forces began to do together what separately they could not. Jew handed Arabs oxygen tanks and masks. Arab and Jew held hoses and sprayed water. Side by side, they carried out survivors and put the burn victims onto stretchers and raced them to hospitals.

None of the survivors asked the nationality of his saviors.

When it was over, 16 people were dead, but 10 had been saved and the blaze was extinguished. The Arabs in the town praised the efforts of their Israeli neighbors.

The story made the news here in America. Reporters, long used to covering bloodshed and violence in Hebron, were captured by the sight of enemies working side by side. TV crews interviewed victims and their families.

One Jewish ambulance driver, who wore the traditional kippa on his head, was asked about his presence in an Arab community.

“When there is a need to save a life, you go anywhere,” he said.

The old fights continue

This small but symbolic incident comes at an interesting time: the end of the millennium, the dawn of a new century. We are supposed to be so advanced, so sophisticated, so far ahead of our more primitive ancestors.

And yet, on the verge of the year 2000, Jew still fights Arab, Muslim still fights Hindu, Catholic fights Protestant, black fights white.

Everyone holds feverishly to his intractable view of right and wrong. And then a fire starts. And everything is burning. And lives are in danger.

Who you gonna call?

The answer is, you will call your neighbor. And your neighbor is whomever you share the world with. When you most need a neighbor, you are not going to care about how he votes, where he prays, what he eats, how he smells.

You are going to realize that he and you — that we — are more alike than different.

And yet we go on living in complete denial. In the last few weeks, in the United States, we’ve seen Republican and Democrat so engrossed in their petty feuds that they refused to agree on such obvious things as 1) Money corrupts candidates or 2) Testing nuclear bombs is bad for the world. And internationally we’ve seen the same old fighting: in Russia, in East Timor.

And yet, if all this shows what is possible at our worst, then the Hebron fire shows what is possible at our best. People, side by side.

After all, we are born the same, we die the same and in between we breathe, sleep, laugh and cry the same.

We shouldn’t need the walls to be burning to figure that out.

MITCH ALBOM can be reached at 313-223-4581. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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