The fire in the Carmel is horrible, and the deaths are painful and deeply felt. But the tragedy that played out wasn’t a twist of fate or an act of God. It was an act of persistent, long-term, almost willful government negligence. Israel has almost no firefighting capacity—pitifully few firefighters working with a tiny stock of aging and dilapidated equipment. I’ve got some comparative statistics below on Israel’s fire-fighting preparedness compared to other countries.
The point is that the government has been confronted over and over with the problem and refused to address it. It’s an old Israeli habit, once charmingly rakish, that’s becoming increasingly self-destructive: improvising, making due, dismissing contingency planning as something for sissies.The widely respected journalist-commentator Ron Ben-Yishai, quoted below, says the government gives low priority to “anything that doesn’t shoot.”
Here’s a glaring example: The fire began Thursday as a localized blaze in a garbage dump just outside the Druze village of Isfiya. It quickly spread out of control, in large measure because Israel doesn’t have a single piece of firefighting aircraft, a key tool in fighting modern forest fires. A couple of these planes - big tankers that dump thousands of gallons onto a fire - could have controlled the blaze before it spread out of control if they had been deployed in the first hours. Instead, Israel had to ask other countries for aircraft, and they didn’t arrive until the second day. By that time the entire Carmel was ablaze. Kibbutz Bet Oren had burned to the ground.
According to Yediot Ahronot, which had excellent next-day coverage of the outbreak, the government has been asked repeatedly to authorize the purchase of two planes but has repeatedly turned down the request. The fire service arranged several years for a Canadian company to bring a plane to Israel for a demonstration run, but the government (under Ariel Sharon at the time) wouldn’t bite. Not long after that, two used planes were tracked down that could have been purchased for less than $5 million total. Still no dice.
Journalist Ron Ben-Yishai, in a column on the Ynet website, compares the disaster to Hurricane Katrina:
The first indication of America’s undermined status as an economic and political power was not the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the mortgage crisis. It was Hurricane Katrina that exposed the U.S. Administration’s helplessness in all areas, ranging from the collapse of New Orleans dams, which the local government failed to maintain, to the outrageous performance of the federal emergency agency, which prompted that deaths of hundreds and caused many more to lose their homes. This served as further evidence for a rule identified by historians a while ago: The moment a regime neglects the national, physical and human infrastructure and allows them to crumble, the state’s or empire’s collapse as a functioning body able to provide physical security and the vital needs of citizens begins. … The State of Israel is at the onset of this slippery slope. It suffers from a grave water shortage because of the delayed construction of desalination plants, and the roads are jammed while lethal car accidents abound because of the absence of decent public transportation infrastructure. Yet the gravest issue is the neglect of rescue and firefighting services, which suffer chronic under-investment in equipment and manpower. …
Ben-Yishai compares the fire damage to Israel’s past (and perhaps future, God forbid) experience with home-front damage from missile strikes, and argues that the government isn’t willing to look the issue in the face:
We must understand that the main strategic-military threat faced by the State of Israel today – the missile threat – is virtually identical to the threat posed by natural disasters. The deaths and injuries to be sustained by missile and rocket barrages will not be the result of direct hits but rather, the destruction of homes, fires, and the release of toxic substances towards residential areas. … Yet the government refuses to provide the mere hundreds of millions or few billions required to set up a heavy duty rescue and firefighting force in Israel. Almost anything that doesn’t shoot is designated as third or fourth priority here, because the current government and its predecessors in the past decade refused to internalize the fact that the home front has become a main front at this time.
Some statistics: The number of full-time working firefighters in Israel is about 1,500. In a population of 7.6 million, that comes to just under two firefighters per 10,000 population. The United States has about 335,000 full-time firefighters (here), or about 12 per 10,000 (not counting organized volunteer firefighters, a widespread phenomenon in America and much of Europe, but non-existent in Israel).
Sweden, Holland and Hungary each have about 25,000 full-time firefighters for populations in the 10 million range, or about 25 per 10,000. Belgium, with a population of nearly 11 million, relies mainly on 11,000 members of organized volunteer fire brigades, along with 5,000 professionals — in other words, about 16 organized firefighters (including 5 professionals) per 10,000 population. (EU statistics here, here etc.) Again, Israel has a little under 2 per 10,000.
Moreover, Yediot reported, Israel’s fire brigades have a total of 516 vehicles, but only 350 are in working condition—and of the working vehicles, 90 are more than 20 years old.
The inadequacy of the fire service didn’t come as a surprise. It is the subject of a report by the State Comptroller that was submitted a half-year ago to the minister in charge of fire fighting services, Interior Minister Eli Yishai of Shas. Nothing has happened. Yishai is now facing a wave of demands that he resign.
Yishai replied to his critics Saturday night, saying that he asked for an extra 500 million shekels back in 2001 when he was interior minister under Ariel Sharon, but was allocated only 100 million and ended up receiving 70 million. He’s calling for an investigation to find out what went wrong. Maybe he’ll hire O.J. Simpson to help him find the guy who’s really responsible.
Two journalists, political analyst Aluf Benn in Haaretz and military editor Alex Fishman in Yediot, wrote similar stories arguing that Israel should learn from this disaster that an attack on Iran is out of the question. Iran would respond (not “maybe” or “probably” but quite certainly) with a hail of missiles that would cause this sort of havoc in numerous parts of the country at once.
As Benn put it in Haaretz:
Yesterday it turned out that Israel is not prepared for war or a mass terrorist strike that would cause many casualties in the home front. The warning of the outgoing Military Intelligence Chief, Amos Yadlin, that the next war will be a lot more difficult than past experiences, and that Tel Aviv will be a front line, was not translated into the necessary preparation by the authorities assigned the protection of the civilians. Under such circumstances, it is best for Israel not to embark on war against Iran, which will involve thousands of missiles being fired on the home front. After the Second Lebanon War, which exposed how pathetic the civil defense system was, reports were written, exercises were held, but everything broke down under the stress of a real emergency on the Carmel range − an area that already experienced the trauma of Hezbollah missiles.
Columnist Ben-Yishai (no relation to Interior Minister Eli Yishai) adds this as an afterthought:
The government can also adopt a bold step and obligate yeshiva students and young Arabs [the two population groups that don’t do military service - jjg] to be trained as firefighting and rescue forces to be available within 30 minutes for emergency operations at their communities. We are talking about tens of thousands of healthy males who are all familiar with the immense irtance of saving lives.
Currently, he writes, the Haredi community performs distinguished service after disasters through the Zaka organization, which collects human remains and body parts after terrorist incidents so all victims can receive a full and proper burial. Better to save lives while it’s still possible than have to clean up after it’s too late.
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).