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Haifa Inferno - Israel's 'Katrina'

Hugh Haifa Fire Reveals Israel's Inadequacy In Coping With Major Forest Blazes

Many Foreign Countries Including Turkey Come To Israel's Aid With Air Transports & Chemical Fire Suppressants

Israel Fire Department Officials Say Arson Is Suspected & Two Arab Suspects Were Caught While Trying To Set Additional Fires

It is the biggest fire in Israel's history killing forty-two people, three others are missing in the fire zone, animal and plant life over 8,000 acres has been decimated, one kibbutz razed and seventeen-thousand Israelis evacuated form their homes in the Mount Carmel region. The Israel Fire Departments were found to be woefully lacking in manpower, equipment and even the vital chemical suppressants for blocking the fire from spreading. For the first time, an Israeli prime minister had to appeal for foreign assistance to cope with the national disaster. Analyst David Essing says one fire expert has already charged that the forty-one prison guards were virtually 'murdered' due to the negligence of public officials.

Israeli fire-fighters, aided by colleagues from neighboring countries, are still battling the inferno that has incinerated thousands of acres of forest land around the city of Haifa. Forty-one Israeli prison guards were killed when their bus was engulfed by the flames that raced through the area that was tinder-dry as a result of the current drought. The entire region was turned into what one expert called a 'powder keg ready to be ignited'. For weeks now, weather forecasters have been warning this has been one of the driest winters years in decades. Last month, a huge brush fire sparked by careless Israeli campers, destroyed a nature reserve on the Golan Heights. While the Haifa blaze was raging, Israeli police arrested several Arabs who tried to start other fires. In recent years, there have been numerous fires both set deliberately some accidentally in the Haifa area, so were adequate measures taken by Israeli officials? The picture emerging is as black as the scorched hills now surrounding the city of Haifa. The debacle of the relevant Israeli authorities is comparable to their American counterparts before the Katrina hurricane that devastated New Orleans due to their failure to repair the antiquated levees that collapsed and led to the inundating of the city.

Click here to see photos of the fire on Mt. Carmel

Binyamin Netanyahu (Photo: Amit Shabi)

For years Israel fire departments have been warning that they are undermanned and ill-equipped to cope with major fires. But the warnings have fallen on deaf ears of the government. Israel has now paid dearly. For the first time ever, an Israeli prime minister has had to appeal to foreign countries for aircraft to drop the special chemicals needed to suppress forest fires. Interviewed on Israel Radio, David Golan the director of Chem-Avir, the Israeli company that imports the necessary chemicals, condemned Israeli officials for their negligence in not seeing the chemicals were available. Golan revealed that several months ago, Israel's State Comptroller had recommended that Israel maintain an inventory of 160 tons of the chemicals for immediate use. However, all of 200 tons of the chemicals had run out due to use in other fires. Golan said he had approached government officials warning of the situation but nothing was done. The Israeli expert implied that government officials were guilty of criminal negligence charging: "The forty-one prison guards were almost murdered!" Fire Department official Hezi Levi said all the fires were caused by people whether deliberately or by carelessness. And he added: "It was not coincidental that all the fires started around the same time".

What is also clear is that without the help of the aircraft and chemicals from France, U.S., Russia Italy, Greece, Britain and Cyprus as well the firemen from Jordan, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Bulgaria the destruction would have been even greater. Then there was Turkey. Prime Minister Netanyahu telephoned world leaders including his Turkish counter-part Recep Tayyip Erdogan who expressed his condolences over the death of the forty-one prison guards. In contrast to his hostile attitude of late, Erdogan was ready to send Turkish aircraft to help. Netanyahu replied that he very much appreciated Turkey's assistance and hoped it would lead to an improvement in strained relations. Israel is often the first to send aid to foreign countries including Turkey and Erdogan did not forget the work of Israeli search and rescue teams during its earthquake disasters. Recently during the Haiti earthquake, Israeli medical teams were flown swiftly to Haiti and Israeli surgeons were operating in their field hospitals before countries such as the U.S. were still getting organized. So what happened this time when Israel was found to be so woefully inadequate in facing a disaster that was just waiting to happen and but was ignored. When the smoke dissipates and the ash settles, rain is finally being forecast, charges and counter-charges will start flying among government authorities.

There will apparently be more than enough blame to go around. After the horses have bolted the barn, Prime Minister Netanyahu will suddenly find the funds and lead the campaign to finally upgrade the fire department and set things right. And the Israeli panacea, an official inquiry may be appointed to ascertain what is already abundantly clear - senior government officials fouled-up big time. It may not have been criminal negligence but part of the Israeli approach: 'Don't worry, it will be alright'. And this may be attributed to living in the vicinity of the very active volcano called the Middle East and which naturally means having to take some inordinate risks. Sometimes Israel gets away with it, sometimes it does not. This time it did not. During previous fires in the Haifa area, the existing manpower and equipment got the upper hand - maybe the wind changed, the forests were not so parched, maybe Arab arsonists were not so skilled, or maybe it started to rain and 'everything did turn out alright'. And as one commentator in Paris put it: " Just look what is happening with the snow storms in Europe that have paralyzed entire countries and just before Christmas!" This is where I throw in the comparison with Katrina's destruction of New Orleans due to the faulty levees that no one wanted to spend the money on. The difference is that living near a volcano means that the margin for miscalculation is far smaller.

In light of Iran's continual spewing of Holocaust lava at Israel, the Israel Air Force is reportedly ready to take on Iran at a moment's notice and the Arrow anti-missile defense system is on 24 hour alert. No factor is apparently overlooked in this equation and justly so. But the comparison will be made that the expense of a couple of F-16 aircraft could have provided the funds for the Israel's Fire Departments to prevent what has had the impact of no less than a strategic terror attack against Israel.

PS1: Minister of Infrastructures Binyamin Ben Eliezer actually warned recently the concentration of toxic chemical plants in the Haifa Bay area has the potential threat of an 'atomic bomb'.

PS2: Israel's National Security Council is tasked with identifying threats to state security. Did none of its wise men and and women, who are paid to do such things, not think of the potential danger posed by the tinder dry forests around Haifa? For that matter the Shabak Security Service should also have given the contingency more consideration than it obviously did. And what if Hizbullah, up to its neck in trouble over the Hariri assassination, decided to launch some incendiary rockets into the Haifa forests, was Israel prepared for such a contingency?

PS3: Whether Arab arsonists started the initial blaze or not, past experience proves that terror organizations are energized by events or attacks that seriously harm the Jewish state. Two suspects were apparently caught in the act and the Shabak Security Service can be expected to nip this danger in the bud.

PS4: Apparently for political reasons, each individual city and town his its own separate Fire Department which operates independently and there is no overall coordination with regard to equipment and training. The Interior Ministry, controlled by the Shas ultra-orthodox party, supervises these individual fire departments but lacks the expertise to so. In light of the Haifa disaster, this sorry situation will apparently be corrected.

David Essing

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