Less than a month has passed since the deadly fire broke out on Mount Carmel, and the blackened forests have become a place of pilgrimage for many Israelis. The fire claimed 44 lives and destroyed over 30,000 dunam (approx 7,500 acres) of woodland in the space of five days. A delegation of thirty-five senior Turkish journalists, who came to Israel to observe the damage caused by the fire, will perhaps do something to restore cordial relations between Israel and Turkey.
Michael Weinberger, KKL-JNF Director of the Western Galilee / Mount Carmel region, who has put out a good number of Carmel fires in the course of his career as a forester, told the visiting journalists of the vital importance of the help provided by the two firefighting planes promptly dispatched by the Turkish government early in the morning of the second day of the fire.
“In many other any countries 30,000 dunam of forest would not be considered very extensive, but by the end of the tour you will understand that for us it’s everything!” Weinberger told the journalists as they observed the scorched landscape from the windows of the bus in which they were traveling. “Here and there you can see the beginning of attempts to rehabilitate the forest – cutting back branches and trees that we hope will renew themselves over the winter – but the woodland will mostly regenerate by itself, and not just from fresh tree plantings,” he explained.
Weinberger told his guests something of his own experiences throughout the five long, desperate days of the fire. “We saw that communities that had a vegetation-free firebreak of between around 70-100 meters remained undamaged. We also realized very quickly that without firefighting measures from the air we would not be able to get control of this fire. And, in effect, it was when the aerial firefighting forces arrived from Turkey and other neighboring countries that we experienced a significant turning point in our ability to control the blaze.”
At the vantage point overlooking the Carmel Forests Hotel, which miraculously survived the blaze even though most of the surrounding area had gone up in flames, Weinberger answered the journalists’ questions. “When we heard that Turkey was sending firefighting planes, we were profoundly touched,” he said. “It came as a great relief. Israel’s firefighting planes are small crop sprayers, which were of little help in putting out the fire. When we saw the Turkish planes and the well-trained firefighters from Turkey and the other countries that had sent help, we knew we could breathe easily,” said Weinberger. “It was a wonderful surprise,” he added with a smile.
The idea of trying to improve relations between the two countries, which had become strained in the wake of the flotilla events in the summer of 2010 and Operation Cast Lead in December 2008 and January 2009, was thought up by the Turkish contracting company Yilmazlar, its CEO Ahmet Aruk – a Turk who has lived in Israel for the past fifteen years and speaks fluent Hebrew – and Nissim Giyus, a Turkish-speaking Israeli who is the firm’s representative in Israel.
The Yilmazlar Group, which initiates and manages construction projects, was founded in Turkey in 1986, and established its Israeli branch in 1995. It is also active in Eastern Europe, and has been employing hundreds of Israeli workers since 2003 under a mutual-purchase offset agreement worth hundreds of millions of dollars that was concluded between the governments of Israel and Turkey.
“As soon as the fire broke out we got in touch with KKL-JNF and asked if we could send help, and that’s what we did,” Ahmet Aruk told the Israeli journalists who had joined the tour. “After it was all over, we felt that if journalists came here and told people what the fire had done to a large portion of the Carmel Forests, explained how vital the help sent by the Turkish government had been, and showed them Israel’s attractive side – we felt that all this might help to initiate a rapprochement.”
“The Turkish people are not racist, and they have nothing against the Israelis,” continued Aruk, speaking with emotion. “Anything good that we do will benefit both peoples; I’m sure that when the journalists go home and tell people what they have seen and heard, it will help to restore the good relations that prevailed between the two countries for decades – for hundreds of years, even, ever since the period of Ottoman rule,” he concluded.
And, indeed, Aruk and Giyus were both right in thinking that things would look different when viewed from a different perspective. The scorched Carmel woodland; the bend in the road where the bus had gone up in flames and claimed the lives of forty-four Prison Service cadets, firemen and police; the temporary memorial erected at the site in their memory; the sad sight of the blackened and abandoned houses of Kibbutz Beit Oren; and the constant flow to the site of Israelis seeking to remember those who had perished – all these communicated to the Turkish journalists both Israel’s sense of great loss and its gratitude towards Turkey and the other countries that had extended a helping hand.
“I was not surprised when I heard that we were sending firefighting planes to help
out in Israel,” said Minhac Çelik, foreign affairs correspondent for the Turkish newspaper Zaman. “In times of emergency Turkey sends aid to countries whose friendship it values, even if diplomat relations at the time are strained. We did this with the summer fires in Greece and with earthquakes that took place. I’m also sure that if, heaven forbid, a disaster of this kind were to strike Armenia, Turkey would be the first to send help, despite the two countries’ history. Countries like Greece, Armenia and Israel are Turkey’s neighbors, and, as such, they are important and precious to it. That’s what neighbors do – they help one another out,” said Çelik.
Nihal Özergan, Bulgarian National Radio’s correspondent in Turkey, also said that the news that planes had been dispatched to help Israel did not surprise her. “The Israelis helped Turkey during the deadly Izmit earthquake of 1999, and Turkey came to Israel’s aid in the Carmel fire. We’re neighbors, and that’s what neighbors do. In times of tragedy humanitarian considerations outweigh all political disagreements. I’m sure that Israel, too, would have sent help had the fire broken out in our country.”
The Turkish journalists’ delegation was invited to take part in a tree-planting ceremony in Atatürk Forest, which commemorates the “Father of the Turkish Nation” who freed his country from Greek occupation in 1921. The Demirel Forest was planted at this site in honor of former Turkish President Süleyman Demirel, who paid a state visit to Israel in 1996, after the murder of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.
“This spot where you stand is a symbol of the friendship between Turkey and the State of Israel,” said Avinoam Binder, the KKL-JNF representative who conducted the tree planting ceremony. “You have seen the damage caused to the Carmel Forests and have received an impression of its extent. I should like to thank the Yilmazlar Group, which has responded to the challenge and is helping to restore the forest, rebuild the ruins and improve relations between our two countries,” he said.
Binder invited Yilmazlar CEO Ahmet Aruk to plant a tree in memory of those who had died in the fire, and concluded by expressing hopes for a greener and more fertile future on the slopes of Mount Carmel.
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