If only. If only.
The national heartbreak over Israel’s most terrible
inferno – a fire that as of Saturday night had taken 41 lives, forced thousands
of people from their homes, and consumed five million trees spread over 12,500
acres of the northern Israeli countryside – is compounded by the terrible
recognition that almost all of its ravages, and all of its fatalities, could
have been prevented.
Investigators’ preliminary suspicion is that the
blaze still terrorizing the North was caused by the criminal negligence of
youngsters in the Druse village of Usfiya, who neglected to douse a bonfire
around which they had been joking and smoking late on Thursday morning. For want
of a modicum of common sense and responsibility, our land is
up-to-date map: Fires in the CarmelOpinion: Expressing gratitudeEditorial: The fire we all saw coming
Flight instructor Alon Chaim saw “smoke over the Carmel hills”
near Usfiya at 11:15, and reported it to the authorities at Haifa Airport. The
way it looked to him, it could have been put out at that stage by a single fire
But it wasn’t. The inevitable commission of inquiry will doubtless
eventually establish why not. The pitiful state of this country’s fire services
– its massive under-staffing and utter lack of adequate equipment exposed these
past three days in direct disproportion to the courage and tenacity of its
personnel – was plainly a critical contributory factor from the very
As the blaze spread, it triggered the single incident in which all
the fire’s 41 victims lost their lives – a rescue bid mounted by the Prisons
Service authority to evacuate Damun jail in the Carmel Hills. With the fire
spreading faster and more unpredictably than the scrambling emergency services
had realized, the driver ferrying this rescue team found himself caught up
amidst the flames and stopped his vehicle.
“We were asking ourselves, why
doesn’t he keep going, why doesn’t he keep going?” recounted Ze’ev Shabtai, a
resident of Kibbutz Beit Oren, who watched impotently from afar as the horror
“Another 100 meters, and he would have been out of the flames,”
Shabtai told the Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch on Saturday
afternoon, as the minister came to see the incinerated wreckage of the bus and
of the accompanying police vehicles.
Two heroic police officers, Lior
Boker and Yitzhak Melina, men whose career instincts had been to race to the
heart of any and every danger, lost their lives rushing to try to help the
trapped passengers; a third officer, Haifa police chief Ahuva Tomer, is at
death’s door having done the same.
The other fatality, Elad Riven, a fire
service volunteer aged all of 16, gave up his life too in a rush to the rescue
that his tearful friends said Saturday was typical of his selfless
At midday on Friday, 25 hours after the start of the
inferno, Hezi Levy, the Fire Service spokesman, had offered the first real
glimmer of hope.
“We do not have the fire under control, but we do have
the situation under control,” Levy said then. “We have commanders deployed on
the ground in all the key areas. We are properly coordinating our work, between
the ground operations and the air forces. We have our priorities
straight, focusing on preventing the blaze from destroying residential
Levy stressed at the time that new blazes were continually
erupting, the battle complicated by the fierce winds. “It’s the worst I’ve ever
seen in 21 years, and colleagues with a lot more years of experience than me say
they’ve never, ever had to fight anything like it. But,” he stressed, “we will
beat it. We’ll fight it until we beat it.”
Levy had warned Friday that
“I’m not sure we’ll put it out today.” He was right. The treacherous flames
twisted and burned through Saturday too, defying the fire-fighters from
throughout the country who confronted it on raging hillsides, amid clouds of
thick smoke, for hour after terrifying, vital hour.
Levy said some
firemen and women had to be pulled out of the field against their will by their
commanders after hours at the front, simply to take a short break, rest, eat and
drink a little.
“They are working utterly without concern for
themselves,” said another senior fire officer late on Friday night.
series of public appearances on Friday and on Saturday, Prime Minister Binyamin
Netanyahu repeatedly praised the “divine heroism,” the spirit of sacrifice,
displayed by the firefighters. By them and all who fought alongside
The army has been deeply involved in the emergency effort. So too
the police, Magen David Adom, ZAKA, the various health organizations, JNF/Keren
Kayemet LeYisrael, the Nature Reserves Authority, innumerable other volunteers
and, notably, the air force, coordinating dozens of firefighting aircraft
concentrated in a hazardous, narrow, smoke-filled patch of sky.
people of Israel are capable of uniting in times of crisis,” said Netanyahu
Such heroism, indeed, such willingness to sacrifice and
such resilience have long since been a dependable characteristic of Israel’s
response to emergency.
It was emblemized, too, by the almost surreal
sights and sounds on Friday afternoon of President Shimon Peres singing “Maoz
Tzur” and other Hanukka tunes in a Tirat Carmel community center with families
of evacuated residents.
Time and again, when required to pull together,
this country has risen to the challenge. And the emergencies never seem
to let up.
If that heroism, resilience and unity have been one source of
comfort, amid a fire-zone described by eyewitnesses as “apocalyptic,” a second
source has been the scale and speed of the international response to Israel’s
pleas for help.
Often, in recent years, it has been Israel that has
stretched out a hand to other nations in distress, to the victims of natural
disaster – most recently to earthquake victims in countries including Haiti and
This time the roles were reversed, and the international
community has not failed us.
Netanyahu, who has correctly placed himself
at the heart of the emergency operation, began making phone calls on Thursday
afternoon, and by first light Friday the first overseas respondents were already
being deployed. From Greece came emergency aircraft, little yellow machines that
flew out to sea, filled up with water, sped courageously into the thickest smoke
to empty their tanks, and repeated the action over and over. By mid-afternoon
Friday, 20 airplanes were at work, eight of them from overseas.
Shabbat, with the international airborne rescue ranks swelled further, some 200
such water-drop missions were flown, with a great, lumbering Russian Ilyushin,
dropping its 42,000 liters of water in just a few seconds on its once-an-hour
circuit, spearheading operations. Early Sunday, a 747 US supertanker, with tanks
holding 95,000 liters, was set to join the fight.
From Bulgaria, early
Friday, came 100 experienced firefighters, telling interviewers through their
smoke masks that they felt “proud” to be able to offer
Cyprus, Britain, the United States, Canada, Romania, Spain,
Holland, Norway, Switzerland, Jordan, Egypt and many more were asked. They all
answered the call, helping as best they could. France quickly dispatched an
emergency load of firefighting materials. The Palestinian Authority’s Mahmoud
Abbas sent fire trucks and, said Netanyahu, real empathy.
Germany, which sent its own medical assistance, even our erstwhile allies turned
vicious critics, the Turks, commendably placed the humanitarian interest above
political frictions and sent help before Israel had even directly asked
“I greatly appreciate this,” said Netanyahu, promising, “We’ll find
a way to show how much.”
He spoke by telephone on Friday with Turkey’s
Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, their first such conversation since
Netanyahu became prime minister.
Netanyahu amended his mantra on Saturday
night to reflect the remarkable international solidarity: “The people of Israel
are united, and lots of the nations of the world are united with us,” he said.
Improbably, indeed, Greek and Turkish pilots were flying in partnership above
the skies of Israel. Officials in Jerusalem were even suggesting late Saturday
that, behind the scenes, Israel and Turkey were now working to find a way to
resolve the diplomatic crisis that has festered with Ankara since May’s bitter
“Mavi Marmara” Gaza flotilla episode.
Once the flames are finally doused
by all the local and international heroes, and the heart-wrenching funerals
endured, the dark side of this unprecedented national disaster will have to be
Chiefly, it appears thoroughly unconscionable that
the Fire Services’ repeated entreaties for greater budgets – to replace and
supplement equipment and bolster manpower from the current 1,400 to 2,400 – have
been rebuffed for years.
Why is it only now that the government is
promising to purchase the firefighting planes the service had been begging for?
Why was Israel’s fleet of such firefighting aircraft discarded seven or eight
years ago? Why, after the Fire Service stated explicitly during its worst-case
scenario emergency drill in May that it simply lacked the resources to confront
precisely this kind of disaster, was that anguished warning ignored? Why the
indifference, especially when it is now being reported that the Fire Service has
had to tackle some 1,200 forest fires in the past year alone, 60 percent of
which were allegedly deliberate cases of arson. This time, too, there are
suspicions that arsonists, acting out of nationalistic motives, in several
places literally poured more fuel on the initial negligently caused
Just days ago, on November 24, The Jerusalem Post
noted that “For
decades there has been talk about equipping our fire-crews with amphibian planes
capable of ferrying in water and dousing flames from above.” The editorial,
written after a fire broke out high in Tel Aviv’s Shalom Tower, pointed out that
“Such planes aren’t only the answer for skyscrapers but also for the sort of
brush fires that have decimated many Golan nature reserves in recent months.
However,” we added bitterly, “these planes are costly, and each day that passes
disaster- free is all too evidently another day that the expense can be put off
This weekend, Israel has risen bravely to confront yet
another emergency. But as so often in the past, the fightback has been
accompanied by that dismal sense that, with better precautions and better
planning, maybe, just maybe, this could all have been
Netanyahu said on Saturday that there was “no shame” once this
blaze had gathered intensity – borne on the gusty winds, rapaciously devouring a
countryside that has seen no rain for months – in Israel’s incapacity to fight
alone, in our desperate, answered pleas for international
Perhaps not. The “shame” is that the inferno was not
prevented or staunched far earlier.
And the challenge now is to ensure
that Israel moves efficiently and effectively forward to sophisticated
self-sufficiency, from the impotent, fatal, heartbreaking “if only” of the
northern inferno of December 2010.