(photo credit: KKL)
"The international assistance that Israel received during the huge Carmel Mountains forest fire may serve to remind us that even between countries, there are things that are more important than politics." Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Foreign Affairs Avigdor Lieberman was speaking at a tree planting ceremony honoring the ambassadors of 23 countries that came to Israel's aid during the recent Carmel forest fire, which destroyed over 35,000 dunams of natural woodlands and planted forests. The symbolic tree planting took place in the courtyard of the Carmel Mountains Hotel, where KKL-JNF firefighters helped stopped the fire's advance.
Mr. Lieberman continued: "On behalf of the Israeli government and the people of Israel, I would like to express my gratitude to your nations and governments. Sometimes it takes a crisis to make us realize that we share common issues that are not political. During the past decade, the world has experienced various natural disasters, including fires, earthquakes and floods. Maybe the right time has come to create an international force to handle these events.
"I would also like to thank the various Israeli organizations that fought this fire, including Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, which organized today's tree planting ceremony and has been a major part of the Zionist story ever since Herzl's vision started becoming a reality. Planting trees is a beautiful form of tribute, and I thank you for being part of it. I hope that you will visit us here in the future and see a beautiful green forest where the color black now chars the earth."
The ambassador's trip took place on Monday, December 13, the day after torrential winter rains finally came to Israel and to the Carmel Forest. This was the first serious rain storm this winter, after the extreme and unseasonable dryness that caused the fire to spread so quickly. Driving through the burnt forest on this overcast day, the ambassadors could still get a sense of the majesty of the Carmel Forest, stunning even in its devastation. After seeing the black hills and burnt skeletons of trees, the symbolic act of planting trees took on special meaning – it became a means of identifying with nature, which, unseen, is already beginning to restore itself, with the tender care of KKL-JNF foresters.
KKL-JNF World Chairman Efi Stenzler greeted the ambassadors and noted that at the beginning of the twentieth century, hardly any trees could be seen on Israel's hills and mountains: "Since then, KKL-JNF has planted over 240 million trees in over a thousand parks and forests. We feared that this disaster would be the end of the Carmel Forest, but thanks to our brave firefighters and your help, much of the forest was saved, and all our future energy will be dedicated to rehabilitating the areas that were burnt. Unfortunately, we gained a lot of experience in forest restoration during the Second Lebanese War, when the Katyusha rockets that bombarded Israel destroyed over 20,000 dunams of forests and natural woodlands.
"The Carmel mountain range is sacred to Jews, Druze, Moslems and Christians. On behalf of KKL-JNF and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, I thank you. With your help, and with the help of our friends and supporters throughout the world, I can promise you that the color green will return to the Carmel Mountains."
Mr. Constantine Papaolopoulos, the Secretary General of the Ministry of Foreign
Affairs in Athens, Greece, spoke on behalf of the group of ambassadors: "I am very touched to be here. When I look out the window, I see a landscape that reminds me of my home. I would like to thank Foreign Minister Lieberman for the initiative to invite us here to plant trees with KKL-JNF. It affords us an opportunity to express our profound and sincere condolences to the families who lost their loved ones in the fire and to all the people of Israel.
"Nature was also a defenseless victim of this fire. I hope that our symbolic tree planting will constitute a landmark for a series of events to restore life and hope. We will stand by you during this process, in the hope that acts of solidarity will forge closer and closer bonds between our countries. Three years ago, when terrible fires broke out in Greece, Israeli firefighters did not hesitate to come to our aid. Let us hope that this is the last time your country experiences such an ordeal. Actions speak louder than words. Maybe one of the lessons we can all learn from this joint effort is that we are all stronger when we work together."
The ceremony was graciously emceed by Ms. Talya Lador-Fresher, the Chief of State Protocol of Israel's Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Ms. Lador-Fresher noted that the tree-planting ceremony took place on the seventh day after the fire was finally stopped: "According to Jewish tradition, there is a seven day period of mourning for someone who passed away. Planting trees today symbolizes the beginning of a time of new growth and restoration."
The ambassadors began their visit at the town of Ussafiya, where the homes of some of the local residents were evacuated until KKL-JNF firefighters managed to control the flames. Dr. Omri Bonneh, director of KKL-JNF's Northern Region, explained about how the fire progressed to Secretary General Papaolopoulos and to Mr. Kyriakos Loukakis, the Greek ambassador to Israel. "I must tell you that the Greek aircraft did a tremendous job. You can see where the fire was stopped thanks to their extremely professional efforts."
The Greek ambassador noted that this was not the first link between Greece and KKL-JNF: "When my Prime Minister visited Israel last July, he participated in a traditional tree planting ceremony in the Grove of Nations in Jerusalem. We are all very impressed by the marvelous job KKL-JNF is doing, which is so important for Israel and the environment. One of the things about friends is that they are there when they are needed."
Mr. Toshiro Aiki, the Deputy Chief of Mission from Japan, brought a flower wreath, which he asked to place at the site where 43 people lost their lives in a bus that caught fire: "We would like to send a message of condolence to your people from our people. I discovered that the fire engines which Japan gave to the Palestinian Authority participated in helping put out the fire. It is our hope that this will signify future cooperation between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples."
After the ceremony, KKL-JNF World Chairman Efi Stenzler presented the ambassadors with certificates attesting to their having planted a tree in the Carmel Forest, expressing Israel's gratitude for coming to her aid in her time of need.
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