Israel is fighting probably her greatest single disaster in her 62 year history. A fire continues to rage in the Carmel Forest on the outskirts of Haifa. The fire has destroyed thousands of acres of forestlands, has burnt down numerous homes including the devastation of an entire kibbutz, and has tragically claimed the lives of 41 people. Not only is this Israel’s worst fire ever, it is also the largest loss of life in a single incident in Israel’s history including natural disasters and terror attacks.
Is comes as something of a surprise that a country like Israel, which has been forced to fight numerous wars and stave off waves of terror attacks designed to threaten her very existence, ultimately finds that a fire results in greater loss of life. This has perhaps been caused by the fact that the winter rains, due already some time ago, have simply not materialised. The country has seen two short rain showers in the last nine months. It would be a gross understatement to say that the countryside is like a tinderbox. A small spark would be all that is needed to set the whole country alight.
The irony is that most of the lives were lost in an act of trying to save those who have been working to destroy Israel. The incident took place when the flames began to approach near to the Damon prison in the Carmel Forest which housed some 500 Palestinian security prisoners. The prison service mobilised all its forces to evacuate the prison in order to save those housed in the prison from the fire. Amongst those called to help was a group of cadets in training to be prison officers. They were put on a bus and immediately transported to the prison in the fire zone. The bus was held up along the road as a result of access restrictions caused by the fire. The driver was instructed to turn the bus around on a narrow road, at which point the fire caught up with the bus and engulfed it and its passengers. This single tragedy cost 36 lives of those endangering themselves to save the lives of those who wish to see us destroyed.
In the case of a disaster like this, it sometimes helps to draw strength from any positive aspects that may arise from the situation. We are fortunate in that there are a number of positives that serve to lighten the heavy burden borne by this tragedy. The first positive aspect is the response by outside countries to the call sent out for help. Prime Minister Netanyahu succeeded in overcoming a classic Israeli character weakness when he acknowledged that Israel cannot go this one on her own, and put out a call for international help. The response has been astonishing with many nations sending manpower or equipment to help in the efforts. These countries include Russia, Cyprus, Greece, the UK, the USA, Azerbaijan, Italy, Bulgaria, Croatia, France and Spain. More surprisingly in view of regional politics is the help that has been provided by Jordan, Egypt, Turkey and even the Palestinian Authority. It is true that Israel has always been first to offer assistance to other countries in the wake of national disasters, even those who refuse to recognise Israel’s place amongst the nations of the world. This has shown itself to be reciprocal in Israel’s hour of need. We have much to be grateful to these countries for. It is clear that things would have been a great deal worse without their help.
The second positive aspect coming out of this natural disaster is the leadership shown by the prime minister and members of his government. In addition to reaching out to outside countries for help, Netanyahu has shown himself publicly to be in charge. He has held numerous TV news conferences to brief the country on the latest developments. He has shown himself to be fully up to date with all aspects of the fire, and has visited the fire scene daily to acquaint himself with facts on the ground. Today, the government’s weekly cabinet meeting will be held in the Carmel Forest area in a show of unity with those who are threatened and have lost their homes. Netanyahu seems to have learned the lessons of the lack of leadership shown by President George W. Bush during the Hurricane Katrina disaster. He has certainly not repeated that mistake.
The third positive point is the extent to which the Israeli public has pulled together to help and support those in the fire zone. Homes and community centres have been opened up and down the country to provide assistance to the 17,000 people who have been evacuated from their homes. Some of these people have lost all of their possessions as the fire swept through everything that they owned. Collections are taking place to provide the basic necessities to get these people through the next few days until they can get back onto their feet. It is true that the process of rebuilding will take more than simply a few days. It is, however, pleasing to see the willingness of others to help during their darkest days.
The long lines of traffic heading up to the fire zone are not only curious onlookers wishing to see first-hand the results of the fire’s devastation. Many of these people are volunteers wishing to provide help and relief to the weary fire-fighters. Such is the indomitable spirit of people in this country that teenagers and young adults are lining up to go into personal battle against the fire. The fact that they are putting themselves into harm’s way seems not to be a consideration. For them, it is more important that they offer their help rather than be concerned about their personal security. This was the spirit of Elad Riven z”l, a 16 year-old boy killed in the line of duty. Elad had been volunteering with his local fire department in Haifa as part of his high school personal obligation. All Israeli high school students are expected to undertake some voluntary work as part of their personal obligation to Israeli society. Elad could not see his colleagues from his local fire station deployed on the front lines without going to truly fulfil his personal commitment. It was here that his young life was taken alongside his senior fire-fighting colleagues.
Today, Israel will bury tens of its finest and bravest. This time not killed in the line of defending the country against the threat of war or terror attack, but killed in a fight against a natural disaster. The circumstances are different, but the spirit is the same. This is the spirit that says that nothing will be allowed to overcome the will to survive in our homeland.
Our condolences and heartfelt sympathy goes out to the families of those who have perished in this disaster. Yehi zichram baruch – may their memories be blessed.