Israel has frequently sent medical and rescue teams to disaster areas, but last week was the first time that Israel found itself in the position of having to ask for help.
Both President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made this point when expressing appreciation on Tuesday to delegations and to diplomatic representatives and defense attaches of countries that responded with alacrity to the catastrophe that confronted Israel with the outbreak of the Mount Carmel inferno.
The special ceremony, for which plans were hatched only on Monday afternoon, was in itself a massive operation that involved the President’s office, the Prime Minister’s Office, the IDF, the Police, the Air Force, the National Fire and Rescue Services, the Foreign Ministry, the embassies of all the countries that sent planes, other equipment and manpower to help fight the blaze, caterers, et al.
For some 90 minutes before the start of the ceremony, the grounds of Beit Hanassi resembled a hybrid between a UNIFIL base and the Tower of Babel, as scores of firefighters, pilots, operations personnel and others, wearing various uniforms in different colors – such as bright orange, navy, khaki, light olive, red and green and brown camouflage – and speaking different languages, mingled with television crews, radio and newspaper reporters and barely managed to take advantage of the Beit Hanassi repast as they answered questions.
They seemed to enjoy the fresh Hanukka doughnuts more than anything else, and the trays were replenished again and again.
Later they crowded into the main reception area, literally taking up wall-to-wall space.
Peres recalled that Netanyahu had been at another ceremony at Beit Hanassi on the day on which the fires had broken out and had excused himself to rush to Mount Carmel, making some phone calls to world leaders along the way.
The combined effort of all the firefighting and rescue teams who had come to Israel was the “highest expression of human responsibility” said Peres, adding that Israel was overwhelmed by the response.
He was particularly moved by the fact that so many firemen leaped into the flames in order to save lives, and termed the whole operation an “outstanding, courageous performance.”
Commenting on the fact that all those who fought the blaze were fighting to make the world a more humane place, Peres was convinced that if hostilities could be put aside in the face of human need, this could bring about change and lead to peace.
Netanyahu, quoting from the second book of Samuel, in which David, in mourning the deaths of Saul and Jonathan, described them as swifter than eagles and bolder the lions, used the Biblical text to describe the bravery of all those who came to help Israel in her hour of crisis.
In expressing his profound gratitude to the teams and the governments they represent, Netanyahu said: “You came, you saw, you acted and you put out the fire.”
He spoke of how he had called Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou to ask for firefighting planes such as the ones he had seen in Greece, and the answer was “they’re on the way.” Seven hours later they were in Israel. Similar responses came from other world leaders.
“If they didn’t have planes they sent firemen,” said Netanyahu adding that others had offered to help.
In the past, he said, Israel had sent some of its bravest sons and daughters to disaster areas around the world to rescue people trapped in earthquakes, to feed the hungry, to set up field hospitals to heal the sick and to deliver babies.
“Time after time Israel was there to help others. This time it was Israel’s turn to ask for help. You stood shoulder to shoulder, you flew shoulder to shoulder with us, and because of your help thousands of lives and hundreds of homes were saved.
“Aircraft from more than a dozen countries were flying in close formation and cooperating as a grand, international fire brigade.”
In Netanyahu’s perception, this cooperation was a model for the future of the region.
He believed that a regional force could be created to address crises in a united and systematic way, “because nature will not leave us alone.”
He discussed this with Papandreou, who was receptive to the idea and is convening a meeting in Athens with representatives of all the countries in the region, said Netanyahu, commending the Greek Prime Minister’s initiative.
What had been witnessed in recent days, he continued, should give hope to those who seek peace as nations put differences aside.
Praising the courage, dedication and friendship of all those who participated in the firefighting effort, Netanyahu said, “The people of Israel is an ancient people with a long memory. We will never forget what you’ve done for us.”
Special citations signed by Peres and Netanyahu were distributed to the heads of contingents or to representatives of diplomatic missions representing the countries from which the assistance had come.
One by one, they went up to the stage in alphabetical order, posing with the two Israeli leaders to have a memento for posterity. The representatives from Azerbaijan, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Egypt, France, Germany, Greece, Italy, Jordan, the Netherlands, the Palestinian Authority, Russia, Spain, Switzerland, Turkey, the United Kingdom and the United States were each loudly applauded by everyone else in the room, including the jaded members of the fourth estate.
The applause was a little louder for Bulgaria’s Hebrew speaking Deputy Foreign Minister Dimiter Tzantschev, who is a former ambassador to Israel; and Brigadier General Ahmad Rezeq, the Palestinian National Authority’s Director General of Civil Defense.
Brigadier General Papageorgiou Vasilios, the leader of the Greek Fire Corps, speaking on behalf of all the rescue teams, expressed sorrow at the tragic loss of human life and conveyed sympathy to the families of the dead, but declared that at the same time there was deep satisfaction in being able to help Israeli colleagues to contain the fire.
Real friends speak with their feet, he said. “We are your friends. If the need ever arises again, you can count us.”
At the close of the ceremony Andreas Schiess of the Swiss Assistance team told The Jerusalem Post
that he has been to many countries to render assistance, “but never did we have a welcome like the one we received in Israel.”
Meanwhile Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is due to arrive in Sofia,
the Bulgarian capital, today to personally convey Israel’s thanks to
President Georgi Parvanov, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov and other