Friends of KKL-JNF from all over the world have rallied to the call for the rehabilitation of the Carmel following the major fire of around four months ago, which consumed 35,000 dunams (about 8,000 acres) of forests and natural woodlands. A mission from the KKL-JNF World Leadership Conference (WLC) opened the first day of the conference with a visit to the charred Carmel and participated in an olive tree planting ceremony together with local council leaders from the region.
“This was the worst ecological disaster Israel has experienced since the establishment of the State,” said KKL-JNF World Chairman Efi Stenzler. He expressed heartfelt thanks to the members of the various missions, whose communities have been assisting in the restoration activities of the Carmel by KKL-JNF, prevention of future fires and the acquisition of modern firefighting equipment.
Before the tree planting ceremony, members of the mission visited Daliyat al Carmel, a Druze city on the Carmel. The mayor, Kamel Nassr a-Din, spoke about the special connection between KKL-JNF and the Druze community. “We work with KKL-JNF in full cooperation, and the ties between us exemplify the firm connection between the Jewish people and the Druze people,” he said.
The conflagration on the Carmel caused much sorrow to all of Israel's citizens and to all people for whom nature has a place in their heart, but for the towns and villages in the vicinity of the forest, it had also been a source of income from tourism. “The great challenge facing us is not only to rehabilitate the forest,” said KKL-JNF Northern Regional Director Dr. Omri Bonneh, "but also to aid the communities that live here to develop new attractions in place of those that were damaged by the fire, so that they may continue earning a livelihood and living in this area with dignity.”
The WLC participants proceeded to the nearby town of Usafiya, where the colossal fire had started. The tree planting ceremony took place some meters away from the point where the flames had begun to spread on the edge of the Druze town. When he spoke, Vegia Kayouf, head of the local council of Usafiya, emphasized the commitment of the residents of Usafiya to nature and to the environment. “We and KKL-JNF have a common goal in the preservation of nature. The activities of KKL-JNF benefit all the citizens of the State of Israel. The forests of KKL-JNF are open to everyone, with no religious or ethnic discrimination.”
For Carmel Sela, the chairman of the Hof Hacarmel Regional Council, who was raised in the area and lives there, it was also a personal tragedy. “Something within me was burned along with the forest,” he said with emotion. “The task we are now facing together is to turn the terrible disaster into an opportunity for the development of the region."
Young musicians from Netanya, members of a band called Massala, accompanied the ceremony by singing and playing. The audience was clearly moved when they sang the song Black Woods, which was composed by Ofir Yaakov especially for the Carmel. Ofir donated the song to KKL-JNF in order to assist in raising funds for restoration of the Carmel, and it quickly became the hymn to the Carmel and to its rehabilitation. The ceremony concluded with a moment of silence to commemorate the 44 people who perished in the fire, and an olive tree was then planted.
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“On Tu Beshvat this year, members of the Knesset planted a symbolic tree here,” said KKL-JNF emcee Andy Michelson. "Now, over 100 people are going to plant a tree at this very spot. This is because it is a symbolic planting in an area that was harmed by the fire, where substantial planting is not yet being done.”
After the ceremony, everyone went on a jeep tour of the burned forest. KKL JNF guides and foresters provided explanations about the fire and about the activities afterwards. It was especially moving to observe the signs of life appearing in the forest - new growth of deciduous trees, budding pines and conifers, and most of all the lush green grass and the beautiful spring wildflowers.
KKL-JNF rehabilitation activities, which are being accomplished with the assistance of thousands of volunteers from all over the world, are focused on maintenance of the forested areas that were not harmed by the fire for the sake of preventing future fires, by trimming and thinning the trees and the brush. Restoration of the burned areas of the forest will be done later on and is expected to take several years.
Yaakov Arak, KKL-JNF forester of the Carmel region, guided one of the groups touring the forest. He told the WLC participants about how the KKL-JNF foresters fought the flames for four days in a row, without sleeping for a minute. He described how the flames flew along the treetops, consuming everything in their path. The intense heat in the area reached 600 degrees Celsius.
Arak was not alone. 170 KKL-JNF workers from all over Israel volunteered at the time of the fire to assist the firefighting forces of Israel, risking their lives. Day and night they fought the flames with dedication. “The firemen protected the residential areas, human lives and property,” said one of the foresters, “and it was only us, the foresters, who worked in the heart of the forest trying to save the trees.” On a personal note, he added, “It is not easy for me to walk around here, in the forest I took care of with my own hands, some of which I myself planted. It hurts to see it black and charred.”
After having assisted in extinguishing the fire, KKL-JNF is now busy with the rehabilitation of the forest. Friends of KKL-JNF the world over are the key to the success of this important undertaking.
While touring the Carmel, we spoke with some of the WLC participants, who spoke about their activities in different parts of the world:
Stanley Chesley, President, JNF USA: “KKL-JNF is, for quite a long time already, not just an organization that is involved in planting trees. We are active in all that pertains to the building of Israel. The central issue these days is water. Water is the key to peace in the Middle East, not petroleum. Inhabiting the Negev is also a crucial area of activity, as far as we are concerned, and this, of course, also requires water.”
Russell Robinson, CEO, JNF USA: “The conference introduces people from all over the world to each other. The upheavals in the Middle East reaffirm how close and united the Jewish world is. This is also an additional reminder to all of us about the great importance of supporting Israel - not because of the threats the country faces, but because what we are doing is building and creating. Our revolution is not taking place in the streets, but our conference is a revolution of action.”
Regarding the central issues that KKL-JNF deals with, Robinson noted water issues and Negev development. “Our work contributes first and foremost to Israel, but the technologies being developed here benefit the entire world, especially the developing countries.”
Adolfo Filarent, President, KKL-JNF Argentina: “We are involved in many projects in Israel, but we are especially focused on developing Shelomit, a new community on the sands of Halutza. There are about 300,000 Jews living in Argentina, and our community is for the most part very connected to the land of Israel.”
Jerry Werger, Chairman, KKL-JNF Canada: “We wish to be involved in the building of the State, which is why it is very important for us to promote projects and develop infrastructure in Israel. In recent years we have been concentrating on building the Halutziyot settlements. KKL-JNF's various educational projects also mean a lot to us. This conference gives us an opportunity to hear from representatives throughout the world about the issues they have to deal with, to share ideas and to learn from one another.”
Jariv Sultan, Executive Director and Shaliach KKL-JNF Switzerland & Austria: “There are about 18,000 Jews living in Switzerland. Not much is heard about us, but our country contributes the most money per capita. When we heard about the Carmel fire, it was immediately clear to us that we had to snap into action. Of course, we were very sorry to hear that the Switzerland forest was one of the groves that went up in flames.”
Ethel Salutskij, President, KKL-JNF Finland, said, “We are a small community with a great commitment to Israel. We participate in planting activities and construction of reservoirs together with other Scandinavian countries. Meeting representatives from all over the world contributes a lot towards information and collaboration.”
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