As massive fire contained, Israeli political feuding begins over who to blame

As massive fire contained, Israeli political feuding begins over who to blame

06 Dezember 2010

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Israel —  As local forces, joined by international fire-fighting crews, approached extinguishing a wildfire which has raged through a forest in northern Israel since Thursday, accusations over who is to blame heated up on Sunday, with the Prime Minister’s Office claiming it inquired about purchasing fire-fighting aircraft four months ago.

After more than three days’ arduous battle, Israeli firefighting authority announced Sunday afternoon that it had fully contained the inferno, according to local news service Ynet.

The brushfire, considered the worst natural disaster in Israel’ s history, has claimed 42 lives and forced the evacuation of thousands of people from their homes. Approximately 50 square km of forest land and thousands of trees were consumed alongside severe damages to homes and infrastructure.

Much of the blaming for the poor handling of the fire is directed at Interior Minister Eli Yishai, whose ministry is directly responsible for the country’s fire-fighting services.

The Ometz “good governance” watchdog called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to fire Yishai due to his “ministerial responsibility for the catastrophe,” The Jerusalem Post reported on Sunday.

Yishai rebuffed the accusations against him, demanding on Friday to set up a governmental commission of inquiry to probe the fire, which required an emergency call for help to nearly a dozen countries which dispatched about 30 fire-fighting craft to Israel.

In the course of an emergency cabinet meeting convened on Friday, Yishai cited long years of neglect that gave way to the disaster, saying that in 2001, Ariel Sharon’s government voted to cancel aerial support for firefighting.

In an effort to ward off the harsh criticism, the Interior Ministry spokesman over the weekend began releasing to local media copies of letters issued by Yishai in the past year, in which he warned about the deficiencies of the fire-fighting services in terms of personnel and equipment, all of which were unheeded.

“I said months ago that we need to plan for an emergency situation. Nobody ever examined a scenario of such a fire,” Yishai was quoted as saying on Friday by the Post.

The interior minister claimed he had demanded to increase the budget allocated for the national fire-fighting services, eventually receiving less than 20 percent that what he had asked for.

“The procedure of ordering and budgeting is a long, bureaucratic process,” Yishai explained.

The Prime Minister’s Bureau in Jerusalem on Sunday turned the blame to the fire services. The bureau’s Director-General Eyal Gabai told Army Radio that the Netanyahu government has allocated a larger budget for purchasing fire-fighting equipment than any previous government.

Gabai added that the bureau turned to the fire services and rescue commissioner several months ago to inquire about fire- fighting aircraft, but received no answer.

Deputy Defense Minister Matan Vilnai, who oversees the home front readiness, on Saturday laid doubt on Yishai’s performance, suggesting that the responsibility for the fire services be transferred to the Public Security Ministry.

Meanwhile, the Israeli Finance Ministry has begun assessing the damages caused by the inferno over the past three days. According to initial estimates, the damages may amount to a billion U.S. dollars, with damage to homes making up some 245 million dollars of that sum.

At the weekly cabinet session, held in a community not far from the scene of the blaze, a decision was made to immediately release 60 million shekels (about 16.3 million U.S. dollars) to residents of the communities stricken by the fires.

Defense Minister Ehud Barak told cabinet members that the state will foot the bill for “any cost that the insurance won’t” in order to restore the region.

Netanyahu opened the session with a call to his ministers to come up with ways to repair the immense damage from the fires. After a minute’s silence in memory of the victims, he told ministers that he expected to see results, “and not bureaucracy,” in dealing with the rehabilitation of the area.

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