Who by Fire?

The Hour

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By Leonard Fein

Published December 06, 2010, issue of December 17, 2010.
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Who before their time, indeed. Nothing is more painful, more devastating, than the absurdly untimely death of the young, here compounded by the realization that they died knowingly, terror their companion, as the incineration engulfed them. May their memory be for a blessing.

And what can we learn from this disaster?

The uplifting part, of course, was the readiness of others to lend a hand when it was clear that Israel’s own hand was entirely inadequate to the task. Israel currently has about 1,300 firefighters available for operational duty, meaning one for every 6,000 residents. The average among Western countries is one firefighter per 1,000 residents. Israel’s firefighting force doesn’t have a single plane; it ran out of flame retardants on the first day of the blaze.

By the end, when Prime Minister Netanyahu informed others already preparing to send personnel and supplies that they would not be needed, Israel had welcomed seven aircraft from Greece, two from Cyprus, two from Turkey(!), three from Russia, five from France, two more from Britain, seven from Germany, five from Spain, two from Azerbaijan, and five from America — as well as 92 firefighters from Bulgaria, 21 firefighters and three fire engines from the Palestinian Authority, along with three truckloads of equipment from Jordan, materials from Egypt — and all this is only a partial list.

Not too shabby for a country that most often thinks itself isolated in the family of nations, a people “that dwells alone.”

Natural disasters often bring out the best in people. It is the little girl falling into the mine shaft syndrome, long-since familiar: Everything stops, except the rush of volunteers to help out (and the television coverage). So it was in the Chilean mine disaster, so also after the tsunami and even, though belatedly, after Katrina.

Suddenly, human solidarity trumps feuds and disputes. As, not incidentally, it has on many occasions for Israel, itself a source of aid to others — Haiti, Turkey, Thailand, Bali, Colombia, even, in earlier times, Iran — sending medical teams and sending its own equipment and tragic experience in searching for the dead, and now and then survivors, in the rubbled aftermath of earthquakes. Sending even teams of its specialists in finding and saving bits and pieces of flesh and bone. The readiness of people and, in this case as in others, of nations to step in, to behave as we all wish people and nations would behave all the time, is largely an unstudied phenomenon. We need to understand it better so that we can try to extend it.

Not all the lessons of the Carmel fire are so bracing. Israel’s own lack of preparedness comes as a disturbing shock. It is not that we expect Israel to be adequately prepared for all manner of crisis. No government ever is. Nor is it even that the shabbiness of Israel’s fire-fighting capacity has long been known. The disturbing aspect has to do with Israel’s readiness (or lack thereof) to deal not with the rare forest fire set off by “natural causes” — in this case, so far as we know, negligence — but with fires set off by missiles.

It is reasonable to suppose that we may now scratch the prospect of a unilateral Israeli assault on Iran from the agenda, for such an assault would surely beget a retaliatory ring of flame that would be well beyond containment and control. In itself, scratching the prospect may not be a bad thing — but surely the new understanding will lead to very substantial revision of Israel’s planning for “homeland defense.” Israel’s enemies now have a new weapon — the knowledge of Israel’s combustibility.

Embedded in this roaring story there are countless quieter stories, stories of the awesome camaraderie among firefighters everywhere (check out, among others, the stories of the 50 reservists of the U.S. Modular Airborne Firefighting System, who flew to Israel out of Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs, on two specially equipped C-130s), stories of the persistent blabbering of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who suggests that the fire was God’s punishment for people’s failure to observe the Shabbat. (Ironically, the theme of divine retribution was echoed by Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas in Gaza, who opined that the massive forest fires in northern Israel were a “strike from God” — “divine strikes for what Israel has done.”) Or check out the sad story of 23-year-old Tania Lansky, one of the young people on the doomed bus, whom the rabbinate refused to bury in the Ashkelon cemetery’s main section because her mother is not Jewish. (Ask, tell?)

There will, in due course, be investigations and recriminations, the adrenaline rush will be done, eventually the Carmel will be green again. For now, it is enough to reflect on the brutal irony symbolized by singing “Ma’oz Tzur,” or “Rock of Ages,” in one breath and chanting the Mourner’s Kaddish in the next.


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