Israel — Israel’s worst-ever bushfire not only claimed 41 lives and destroyed around 50 square kilometres of land – it also sparked indignant questions among the public, pundits and politicians about the country’s preparedness.
As Israelis sat transfixed in front of their televisions all weekend, watching exhausted firemen deal with the lethal inferno, voices were being raised demanding to know why Israel’s firefighting services were in such a catastrophic state of neglect – and who was to blame?
Questions were also being asked as to how Israel could deal with a possible missile attack from Iran or its proxies in Lebanon, if it could not cope with a fire – albeit the biggest and worst in the country’s history.
No one denied the basic, stark facts – that Israel has only 347 firefighting trucks, 200 less than needed – only one firefighter per 6,000 people (as opposed to one per 1,000 people, which is the norm abroad), no firefighting aircraft, and outdated equipment.
Nor did anyone take responsibility for the fact that the recommendations of various commissions on revamping the firefighting force have been steadily ignored, or at best only partially implemented.
‘In a normal country, someone would have committed hara-kiri already. Either that, or they would have resigned,’ fumed Sima Kadmon, a columnist with the mass-circulation Yediot Ahronoth daily.
And almost as soon as the questions were asked, the politicians began answering them. This they did by employing the age-old bureaucratic and political tactic of deflecting blame somewhere else.
The interior ministry, and the prime minister’s office and the finance ministry all blamed each other, saying funds for the fire services were asked for and not enough were given, or were allocated and not utilized properly, or would have been allocated if only certain reforms were made.
The finger was even pointed at former Israeli Premier Ariel Sharon who – possibly coincidentally – has been in a coma in hospital since early 2006, and so cannot answer back.
Among the public, most of the blame was pointed at Interior Minister Eli Yishai, under whose ministry the fire services fall.
Yishai was accused of not immediately implementing a state comptroller’s report on the shortcomings of the fire service to fight for more funds and of not using the report to fight for more funding.
Yishai was quick to respond, saying he had demanded more money, but did not receive nearly enough, and citing bureaucratic obstacles in the ordering and receiving of new equipment.
Absent from public view in the hours after the fire began, he emerged Friday afternoon to demand a commission of inquiry.
He also pointed a finger at former premier Sharon, saying his was the government which decided to eliminate air support for fire fighting.
Yishai’s explanations were not well received by most pundits, who pointed out that had he fought for the fire services as tenaciously as he battles on issues close to the heart of his ultra-Orthodox constituents, the situation would have been different.
‘Yishai, who was so busy working on behalf of his own private sector, did not have the time to work on behalf of the general Israeli public,’ columnist Yael Paz-Melamed accused.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office, for its part, claimed that it had allocated a larger budget for the fire-fighting services than previous governments.
For some observers, the question raised by the fire was what would happen if Israel faced an unprecedented missile attack from Iran.
Analyst Alex Fishman, writing in the Yediot Ahronot daily, noted that ‘Israel’s firefighting services collapsed in the face of a fire storm’ and asked ‘what would we have done in the face of dozens and hundreds of missiles producing fire storms in various regions nationwide, including urban areas with high-rises?’
Yakov Katz, the defence analyst of the Jerusalem Post, was more direct.
The fire, he said would serve as a ‘wake-up’ call, but, he added ‘it is time Israel stopped depending on wake-up calls and began to counter challenges ahead of time.’
‘Especially,’ he concluded, ‘ones that are written on the wall in flaming orange letters.’