Jerusalem — Even before representatives from almost two dozen nations succeeded in helping Israel put out the flames of its largest and deadliest wildfire early this week, the public was demanding accountability for the tragedy.
The massive wildfire, which claimed 42 lives and destroyed much of the majestic Carmel Forest near Haifa in the north, shone a glaring spotlight on the country’s woefully inadequate fire-fighting resources.
From an Israeli perspective, the Carmel fire was a tragedy of war-like proportions. One of the deadliest non-military events in the country’s history, the fire killed 42 people, damaged or destroyed 250 homes, prompted the evacuation of 17,000 people and ravaged 12,500 acres of precious greenery.
By all accounts, Israel’s firefighters were ill prepared to deal with the fire, which officials believe was started accidentally by a 14-year-old water-pipe smoker who was too afraid to report it. The teen, from the Carmel area, was arrested Monday, reportedly telling officials he had thrown away a hot coal and then gone back to school.
Over the years, 10 separate committees have said the number of Israeli firefighters (only 1,5000 in a country of 6 million) and equipment is woefully inadequate.
Israel has only 16 firefighters per 100,000 people. The United States, Japan and Greece have up to seven times that number per capita, according to the Associated Press.
When fires break out, authorities rent crop dusting planes to put them out.
Compounding matters in a country with hot summers, little rain and high winds in the north, is the dearth of man-made water sources from which firefighters can draw water in forests and other vulnerable areas.
Yet another problem: the Fire Service is under the authority of the Interior Ministry, whose expertise is citizenship applications, not fire-fighting.
Interior Minister Eli Yishai, a haredi Knesset member from the Shas party, is one of the government officials facing the political heat in the fire’s aftermath, with calls for his resignation.
“Yishai accuses the finance minister and treasury officials of turning down his requests to increase the fire-fighting budget,” said an editorial in the Israeli daily, Haaretz, that called for the interior minister’s sacking. Had he employed the same persistence that he demonstrated “in his battles against the children of labor migrants, or in favor of allowances for the haredim and the expansion of settlements in East Jerusalem,” the fire budget would have been approved, the editorial asserted.
Yishai defended his actions and accused his detractors of targeting him because he is Sephardi and Orthodox.
That assertion roiled many mainstream Israelis, who were further angered by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, Yishai’s spiritual leader, who said the fire was God’s punishment for Shabbat desecrations; and by media reports that Yishai had turned down an offer of several fire trucks by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews because the donors are evangelical Christians.
In a disturbing round-up of national un-readiness, Haaretz painted a bleak picture of how Israeli officials will cope with a series of national emergencies, from earthquakes (a serious one hits Israel roughly every 80 years), chemical spills in the industry-rich Haifa port, and a massive outbreak of disease.
Another article in the series focused on long-known safety lapses at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv “that would claim many more victims than the forest fire in the north,” the article said.
“Until a catastrophe strikes, no one cares,” Maariv political commentator Shalom Yerushalmi wrote in a scathing op-ed.
During his Sunday cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged his government to act quickly to help get victims back on their feet.
“I do not want delays. I do not want bureaucracy. I want quick solutions.”
Even political rivals credited the prime minister with being quick to recognize the need to call for air support from abroad, including the Supertanker, the largest fire-extinguishing plane in the world, which Israel rented from a U.S. company.
Most of those killed in the fire were cadets training to become prison service officers. They were on a bus heading to evacuate a prison in the region when flames engulfed the vehicle.
Driving behind the bus was Ahuva Tomer, 52, the police chief of Haifa and highest-ranking woman on the Israeli police force. Her car was also caught in the flames, and she died on Monday.
While the government has already earmarked millions of dollars to help those affected by the fire get back on their feet, the rehabilitation of the once-beautiful forest could rely on overseas donations.
On Sunday, the Tourism Ministry announced that, together with the Jewish National Fund, it would begin recruiting leaders in the American Jewish and Evangelical Christian communities to spearhead fundraising campaigns to rehabilitate the forest.
“Thousands of [ministers] from large churches across North America, among others” are being recruited for the tree-planting campaigns, the ministry said.
The JNF is also requesting donations for fire trucks and other paraphernalia.
This doesn’t sit well with Atlantic writer Jeffrey Goldberg, who asserts that Israel’s firefighting apparatus “should be funded by Israel’s government, not by the people of Boca Raton, Potomac and the Upper West Side. (See story on page 1.)
If some Israelis have qualms about relying on the largesse of overseas Jews and Christians, they had no such reservations about accepting the assistance of foreign governments to put out the Carmel inferno.
If anything, the willingness of the Israel’s “global neighbors” — including Jordan, Egypt, Turkey and the Palestinian Authority — to help Israel proved to be “a heartwarming eye-opener,” wrote David Brinn, an editor at the Jerusalem Post, in an essay.
Brinn said Israelis were happily stunned by the assistance because they’ve been “conditioned to be paranoid,” and to view everything through the lens of the Arab-Israeli conflict.
That firefighters from Bulgaria and Greece, among others, risked their lives to save Israelis proves that “we are an accepted member of the world of nations.”
It’s unfortunate, Brinn said, that it took “such a monumental tragedy for that to be revealed.”
In a sign of diplomatic warming, Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan offered firefighting assistance to Israel, and he and Netanyahu spoke for the first time since the Gaza flotilla incident. But as if to underscore how tricky such diplomacy can be, Erdogan — who wants Israel to apologize for the flotilla raid — said that Turkey’s humanitarian gesture in offering to help the Israelis fight the fire should not be confused with a diplomatic breakthrough.
For Israel, A World Of Help
Below is a list of countries who aided Israel in fighting its worst
Azerbaijan: 2 helicopters
Bulgaria: 1 plane, 92 firefighters
Croatia: 1 plane, 8 firefighters
Cyprus: 1 plane, 1 helicopter
Egypt: Fire-repression materials
France: 5 planes,
Germany: 1 plane, 7 experts
Greece: 7 planes, 34 firefighters,
Holland: 5 experts in fire-fighting
Italy: 1 plane and fire
Jordan: 3 truckloads of
Authority: 21 firefighters,
3 fire engines
Russia: 3 planes,
22 experts in fire-fighting
Spain: 5 planes
Switzerland: 1 plane, 3 helicopters,
Turkey: 2 planes
Kingdom: 2 helicopters
United 5 planes, 11 experts
States: in firefighting and
fire repression materials
fire in history and the equipment and personnel it offered.