JERUSALEM – In the aftermath of the deadliest fire in Israel’s history, Israelis this week set to the task of burying the dead, cleaning up and figuring out what exactly went wrong – and who is to blame.
Even before the blaze in the Carmel Mountains near Haifa came under control Sunday afternoon, Israelis were asking why the country wasn’t better prepared for a wildfire of this magnitude. In all, 42 people were killed, about 250 homes were destroyed or severely damaged, 17,000 people were forced to evacuate, more than 12,000 acres were burned and an estimated 5 million trees were lost.
The damage to northern Israel was estimated at about $75 million, including damage to towns and kibbutzim, destroyed forests and damaged roads. Yemin Orde, a village founded in 1953 that has served as a home and school to thousands of immigrant youths, most recently Ethiopians and Russians, was severely burned. In Kibbutz Ein Hod, 10 houses and an art gallery were destroyed.
On Sunday, the Israeli Cabinet approved a $16.5 million aid package to assist damaged communities, and Prime Minister Netanyahu ordered that each person whose home suffered severe fire damage be given an immediate aid disbursement of about $700.
Calls came from many quarters for the resignation of Interior Minister Eli Yishai, whose ministry is responsible for the state’s firefighting forces. Yishai is also accused of refusing fire truck donations from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews.
Yishai said his ministry was not funded well enough to purchase needed equipment – in 2001, he noted, Ariel Sharon’s government voted to eliminate air support for fire fighting – and told Israel Radio that he was a target because of his Sephardic heritage.
Israel has 16 firefighters per 100,000 residents; by contrast, the United States, Japan and Greece have five to seven times that number per capital, The Associated Press reported. In total, Israel has 1,400 fire fighters.
A 14-year-old resident of the Druze village of Ussfiya was arrested Monday after admitting to starting the fire. The teen reportedly said he was smoking a nargila water pipe and threw a live coal into an open area before returning to school.
The arrest was announced hours after two teenage brothers from the same village arrested over the weekend on suspicion of negligence in starting the fire were released from detention by a Haifa court. The teens had been accused of lighting a bonfire near their home that sparked the blaze.
High winds and dry weather conditions provided fuel for the blaze, which began tearing through northern Israel on Dec. 2. Northern Israel is covered by fields and trees planted over the decades – many of them by pioneers during the British Mandate period. Others were planted by Diaspora Jews through the Jewish National Fund.
Meanwhile, numerous figures in the Arab world cited the fire as punishment from God for Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and its occupation of Arab lands. The Palestinian prime minister in the Gaza Strip, Ismail Haniyeh, said the fire was a “strike from Allah.”
The spiritual leader of the Israeli Orthodox Shas Party, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, also said the fire was divine punishment, attributing the blaze to the sin of lack of observance of the Sabbath.
During the height of the blaze, Israeli’s chief Sephardic rabbi, Shlomo Amar, led thousands in prayer at the Western Wall. Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger called on Israelis to give charity and read Psalms to bring about the fire’s end.
For its part, the Israeli government issued a rare call for international assistance. Among the countries that responded were Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, Cyprus, Greece, Germany, Russia, France, Switzerland, Britain, Spain and the United States. The Palestinian Authority also sent 21 firefighters and four fire trucks to help battle the blaze.
Thirty-five firefighting airplanes came to Israel. New York sent a 747 loaded with Fire Troll 931, a fire retardant chemical, in a shipment organized by the New York City Fire Department and the office of the city’s mayor, Michael Bloomberg.
Israel also rented the American Evergreen Boeing 747 Super Tanker, one of the most advanced firefighting planes in the world, loaded with 80,000 liters of water and fire retardant. It arrived early Sunday morning and had an immediate effect on helping douse the flames.
The deadliest incident came in the fire’s early hours when a bus carrying about three dozen cadets from the Israeli prisons service on their way to evacuate a prison threatened by the blaze became trapped between burning trees. Nearly all those aboard perished, and the bus was left a scorched shell.
Jewish communities in Denver and Winnipeg, Canada, also mourned the death of one of the bus passengers, Rabbi Uriel Malka, 32, who was working as a chaplain in the Israeli Prisons Service.
Malka, a father of five, worked as a Jewish Agency emissary for two years in Denver and then served as principal of the Ohr HaTorah Day School in Winnipeg. Malka had narrowly escaped death during combat in the Second Lebanon War.