EU by Israel’s side when wildfires raged the country

Urgently needed assistance was delivered to Israel through the EU Civil Protection Mechanism and by several member states when the country was hit by wildfires last week. Haifa, the third biggest city located in northern Israel, was specially affected and more than 60 000 inhabitants were evacuated on Friday (25 November) from tens of neighborhoods close to forests where the fires broke out on the Carmel Mountain.

To help contain the devastating wildfires, which spread quickly because of strong winds and an unusually dry period without any rains, Israel had requested European assistance through the European Union Civil Protection Mechanism on 24 November.

Substantial assistance was offered via the EU Civil Protection Mechanism. Fire-fighting plains were first sent by Greece, Italy, Cyprus, and Croatia. Turkey and Russia provided also assistance. Spain, France and other EU member states have also sent or offered assistance.

EU is often depicted in Israel as having a negative attitude towards Israel but the words by EU High Representative/ Vice-President Federica Mogherini will probably go some way in changing that perception.

In a statement on 25 November she said that “We stand by the Israeli people and authorities at this time of need. Not only in words but with concrete support. I’m pleased that EU Member States are showing their solidarity in action. We will continue to be in close contact with the Israeli authorities to mobilise further offers of assistance as required.”

Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Christos Stylianides added: ”The EU has immediately responded to the call for assistance and has helped mobilise 7 airplanes to support Israel so far, thanks to the generosity of our Member States. Our solidarity and thoughts are with all those affected and the first responders working to save lives. We stand in solidarity with Israel at this time of need”.

At the time of writing this article, the situation seems to have been brought under control and most fires have been extinguished. The arrival of more fire-fighting planes from abroad, including a “supertanker” from the US, should prove effective against any new fires. Besides Haifa, several places around the country were affected by the wildfires. Hundreds of people were hospitalized for smoke inhalation but not fatalities were reported.

However, in Haifa, a city with almost 300 000 inhabitants, the wildfires took a heavy toll. During last Thursday and Friday the city was engulfed in smoke and flames. Schools were closed and inhabitants were instructed to leave the affected neighborhoods and look for temporary accommodation with relatives or at hotels. Those who had no place to go were sheltered at a concert hall and community centers.

The immediate danger was over after about one day and night and the inhabitants were allowed to return to their neighborhoods where the smell of the fires and the sight of black grounds met them. More than 100 buildings with 800 apartments were burnt and damaged and hundreds of families found themselves without a home to return to.

Haifa is known for its Jewish-Arab co-existence and even that seemed for a moment in danger. The fires sparked disputes between Arab and Jewish politicians following suspicions that some of the fires were not accidental but intentional and politically motivated by Palestinian terrorists who took advantage of the weather to set fire to forests. A number of arrests have been made.

The fires also ignited social media with commentators in Arab countries hostile to Israel celebrating its misfortunes. Prime Minister Netanyahu said that “every fire that was the result of arson or incitement is terror in every way and we’ll treat it as such.” However, overall the Palestinian reaction was supportive. The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank sent well-needed fire-fighters to help to extinguish the fires in Israel.

A Palestinian firefighter said that “We don’t care about politics. We are here to help. When it comes to rescuing people in an emergency situation there is no difference between people and nations.” Knesset member Ayman Odeh, himself from Haifa, said: “Now we must link arms, no matter if we are Jews or Arabs: Haifa and the Carmel belong to all of us and the main thing is to save it.” And saved it was.

Last time Israel experienced a natural disaster of this magnitude was in December 2010 when a fire broke out in the Carmel forest south of Haifa, lasting four days and claiming 44 lives. The fire was probably caused by uncontrolled burning of waste in nature and caught Israel unprepared. The disaster resulted in heavy criticism by the Israeli state audit against the lack of fire-fighting resources and coordination between municipal and state authorities.

Following the audit, Israel established a central fire-fighting authority, recruited more fire-fighters – although many hundreds more are still needed in nation-wide emergencies – and acquired more fire-fighting planes. But a major recommendation, creating wide buffer zones between forests and populated areas to reduce the risk of the spread of wild-fires, was not generally implemented according to leading opposition paper Haaretz (25 November).