Israel wildfire exposes gaps in emergency preparedness

As international help pours in to quench an unprecedented Israeli wildfire, many are asking whether the country is equally unprepared to deal with an Iran or Hezbollah missile attack.

Avishag Shar-Yeshuv/AP
Israeli firefighters extinguish fire during a wildfire in the Carmel Heights near Haifa, northern Israel, Dec. 2.

Firefighters struggled for a second day to overcome a deadly blaze in the Carmel mountains outside of the northern Israel city of Haifa, as fire trucks flown from European countries arrive to help extinguish the worst fire in the history of the Jewish state.

The brushfire disaster has claimed at least 42 lives and marked the first time that Israel – which prides itself on dispatching emergency personnel to disasters abroad – has found itself appealing for international assistance. Israel's police chief said the fire wouldn't be brought under control before Saturday afternoon.

The seeming lack of preparedness for the fire, in a country where emergency drills are commonplace, has prompted many commentators to suggest that if Israel is unable to beat back a wildfire, it cannot proclaim to be prepared for manmade calamities – possible attacks from Iran or another war with Hezbollah.

One Israeli cabinet minister acknowledged the "problematic picture" emerging – a fire service that despite warnings of emergency officials and government officials was ill-equipped to deal with such a large emergency.

"A country that plans to attack the nuclear infrastructure of a distant regional power, a country that leads the world in hi-tech and whose economy emerges the least damaged from the global crisis," observed Ben Caspit in the daily Maariv newspaper, "is also the country that has its firefighting material run out after seven hours, a country whose fire-trucks date back to the previous century....''

A catalyst for improved Turkey-Israel relations?

Israel is awaiting additional firefighting equipment from Cyprus, Greece, and Turkey, which is in a bitter diplomatic clash with Israel over the deaths of nine activists on a ship that challenged the blockade of the Gaza Strip.

In a telephone call thanking Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he hoped the aid would be an opening for better relations.

"This catastrophe is creating opportunity for diplomacy. Maybe it will speed up the process" of resolution between Jerusalem and Ankara, says Alon Liel, a former Israeli diplomat who served in Turkey. "We usually can handle the troubles we have, especially when its terror. But this time we could not because of the size [of the fire] and because we were not prepared."

Israelis headed to evacuate Palestinian prisoners perish

Since the fire broke out Thursday morning, some 17,000 residents in the suburbs outside of Haifa, have been evacuated. The fire, which hasn’t reached Haifa, has burned through thousands of acres of pine and oak trees that blanket a mountain range to the southeast.

All of the fatalities occurred Thursday afternoon on a narrow mountain road where the fire trapped a bus carrying about 50 prison guards and officer cadets to assist in the evacuation of about 500 prisoners, many of them Palestinians.

Mr. Netanyahu called the blaze a "fire of international proportions" while Haifa Mayor Yonah Yahav called the incident a "national tragedy."

As darkness fell here Friday, Israeli authorities said they didn't know how soon the fire could be extinguished. "It's going to take days," said Israeli Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch. But police commissioner Dudi Cohen expressed optimism that it could be contained by Saturday night, reported Ynet news.

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