So far, no people have been killed, but over one thousand homes have been destroyed or damaged while tens of thousands of people were evacuated as the flames raced towards their communities. Some Israelis had to race for their lives carrying their small children and pets. Thousands of animals perished in the flames while tens of thousands of trees have been incinerated in over two hundred separate fires. Forestland that was planted and developed over the decades has been left a wasteland. It is a national disaster.
Visiting the Hatzor Air Base from where special firefighting aircraft have been 'bombing' the fires around the clock, Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu said experts have concluded there is no doubt that arsonists are involved, although the dry weather and strong winds may have started the inferno. Thirty-three Palestinian suspects have been arrested as the investigation continues. Netanyahu believes the arson campaign is a 'derivative' of the wave of 'lone wolf' terrorism that started over a year ago. Now it is a case of terrorists deliberately igniting forest fires rather than wielding knives or hatchets. In other words: 'If you can't stab them, let's burn them!'
Not yet an intifada of fires...
It was still too early to say if the arson was an organized campaign or a new type of intifada. It may be that individual Palestinians have exploited the warm and dry weather conditions and are acting on their own. One suspicious sign was that although there are many Arab towns and villages in northern Israel, very few if any, have been seriously threatened or damaged. In any case, Netanyahu warned Palestinian arsonists would be treated as terrorists and would be prosecuted to the full extent of the law. Meanwhile Israeli-Arab leaders have condemned the terrorists who started some of the fires. Palestinian President Abbas has also condemned the terrorists and also sent eight of his fire trucks to Israel. Netanyahu has telephoned Abbas thanking him in person.
From beautiful vista to wasteland...
The lack of rainfall this autumn and days of strong dry easterly winds for over a week turned much of the forests in northern Israel into a tinderbox. Once the flames broke out they were fanned by the high winds that swept them with incredible speed. In some cases, firefighters who had been combating the flames around the clock, had to rapidly move out of the way. But although no people have been killed, the loss of wildlife is devastating. Moreover the forests were painstakingly planted and cultivated for decades turning what had been a barren landscape into a beautiful green vista of flora and fauna. Natural causes and Palestinian terrorists have now turned much of it into a wasteland; environmental experts fear it will take decades to restore it. Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has said that since this was an act of Palestinian terrorism, the government will grant financial aid to Israelis who lost their homes. (It is now being reported that the Israeli community of Nataf near Jerusalem is going up in flames!)
Out of the carnage there is one consolation. Many foreign countries have rushed to Israel's aid by sending aircraft and fire fighters. Nearby Greece was the first, followed by Cyprus, Turkey, Croatia, Italy, the U.S., Russia, Britain, France, Azerbaijan, Czech Republic, Romania, Bulgaria, Belarus, Portugal, Switzerland and Georgia. But most notable Egypt and Jordan were also ready to pitch-in. Netanyahu thanked them for their aid, citing it as an example of international cooperation in time of national disasters. Moreover to the best of his knowledge this was the first time the special fire-fighting aircraft had flown missions at night and dropped their payloads over a city threatened by fire. Israel has always been among the first to come to the aid of other countries in times of their humanitarian need and the IDF has developed a unique and sophisticated field hospital ready to be airlifted from 'Haiti to Honolulu' within hours. This has not gone unnoticed by the international community.
IsraCast Suggestions: This is not the first time Israel has suffered devastating damage from brush fires, during what can be a very dry autumn, that are fanned by strong 'Sharkiya' winds raising the fire alert to extremely high. Therefore, the government should pass a law empowering the Fire Department to declare forests to be off limits until further notice. No hikes, barbeques or even forestry work to be allowed under pain of severe fines or even time in the slammer! (One big blaze was ignited by forestry workers who had made a small bonfire to make coffee. Even they, who should have known far better did not completely extinguish their bonfire, which later flared into a major forest fire!) Severe problems do require severe remedies! Declaring forests off-limits for a short period of time would also deter would-be terrorists because anyone caught would be a suspected arsonist. During this emergency period, pilotless drones would be on patrol to spot any intruders and immediately alert the police who could catch the trespassers.
A regulation for creating firebreaks of empty spaces between villages and nearby forests already exists, but only on paper. It stipulates there be a firebreak of nearly one hundred yards between the trees and the nearest buildings. Moreover only a few trees are permitted in this restricted zone. Some 200 communities were informed they must comply with this regulation but only a few dozen took action. A previous regulation also called for special roads be built to enable fire-trucks and other equipment to enter forest areas. However these regulations have not been enforced.
Israel should also seek advise from Canada which has vast experience in fighting forest fires and could provide valuable advice. Meanwhile, more help is on the way... the weather bureau has forecast a heavy rainstorm for Wednesday, November 30th!
Is Netanyahu all at sea over German submarines?
The Prime Minister had another hot potato to handle this week. Allegations that he and his private lawyer, David Shimron, were up to financial chicanery involving the purchase of more German submarines. To understand where it's all at, it is useful to examine where we've first been.
In the wake of World War II, Germany has become one of Israel's strongest allies in Europe and Chancellor Angela Merkel has done almost all in power to atone for the Nazi atrocities against the Jewish people. After Iraq attacked Israel with Scud missiles during the First Gulf War in 1991, Germany offered to supply Israel with three Dolphin class submarines subsidized mainly by Berlin and designed and built by ThyssenKrupp. Later Israel purchased three more subs, and is now interested in buying another three to replace three of the older subs. The Israeli Defense Ministry issued an international tender for the subs. Then the story dives under murky waters.
David Shimron, a private lawyer who happens to be Bibi's cousin, represents the Netanyahu family's private affairs. Out of the blue, Shimron telephoned the legal advisor of the Defense Ministry asking if the international tender for the subs had been withdrawn 'in keeping with the PM's wishes'. The intention being that Netanyahu insisted that the additional subs also be purchased from a German ship builder. Now it transpires that Shimron is also the lawyer of an Israeli businessman who represents the German shipbuilder in Israel. The suspicion is that this Israeli businessman and Shimron would receive a huge commission in Euros if the sale of the German subs went through. And what business did Shimron have in meddling with Israel's Defense Ministry on a question of the highest national security?
For their part, both Shimron and Bibi have declared that they never discussed the sub contract, and Netanyahu had no knowledge that Shimon was potentially on the payroll of the German firm. Nonetheless Shimron's connections with Netanyahu and the German ship-builder have raised serious suspicions about a grave conflict of interests involving a major Israeli security concern. How is it that Shimron is apparently on the Netanyahu family's private payroll while also on the payroll of an Israeli businessman who represents the German shipbuilder!?
Another question is what kind of retainer, if at all, does Bibi pay Shimron for his family's legal affairs? Had Netanyahu favored the German deal because it would grant Shimron a big commission from the German shipbuilder if Israel chose the German subs, (a deal estimated at a whopping 1.3 billion Euros)? Shimron and the Israeli rep of the German shipbuilder would cash-in on tens of millions of Euros in commission.
The plot thickens...
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, after intense prodding from the media and the Opposition, has now ordered a police 'examination' of the affair to determine if there are grounds for a full blown investigation. To add fuel to the flames, Mandelblit previously served as Cabinet Secretary, Bibi's right-hand man. At the time, critics such as IsraCast raised the issue of how Mandelblit, who had just served as Bibi's 'man Friday', would be able to investigate his former boss and benefactor, if the PM ever became the subject of a legal investigation. Alas this has now come to pass.
To be fair and objective, let's look at it from Bibi's point of view. In the past, Germany has indeed been a solid ally of the Jewish state and even financed part of the sub deal. Israeli naval experts involved have also praised the very high standard of the subs, and that the German designers cooperated fully with the special Israeli specifications in their design. In other words, Israel's navy says ThyssenKrupp did a great job. It follows that Bibi would want to select the Germans also for political reasons. So is the fact that his private lawyer is involved just a harmless fly in the ointment? Bibi says he had no idea that Shimron had a link to the German shipbuilder because he and Shimron never discussed the sub deal, an issue of top security. Shimron, to prove he is telling the truth, has arranged and paid for his own private lie detector test, he even prepared the questions he was to be asked! The lawyer is waving the results saying it proves he is telling the truth and is clean as the driven snow! Stay tuned for the next episode...