Correction to This Article
Earlier versions of this article, including in the print edition of The Washington Post, incorrectly described the Western Wall, where a prayer for rain was held, as Judaism's holiest site. The wall is the holiest place Jews can pray, but the Temple Mount is considered Judaism's holiest site. This version has been corrected.

Northern Israel wildfires rage on despite outpouring of foreign help; 42 dead

European aircraft dumped tons of water over flames shooting from tall trees Friday in northern Israel as firefighters struggled for a second day to contain the country's worst-ever forest fire, which has killed 42 people and displaced thousands.

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By Janine Zacharia
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, December 3, 2010; 12:39 PM

JERUSALEM - The worst fire in Israel's history showed little sign of abating Friday after two days of the unchecked blaze had killed 42 people, consumed more than 7,000 acres and nipped at neighborhoods in the northern city of Haifa, Israel's third-largest.

The fire had also destroyed a large chunk of the Carmel Forest, one of Israel's natural crown jewels and a popular tourist and vacation destination, known as Little Switzerland because of its beauty.

By Friday, the flames had engulfed several kibbutzim and were racing down hills toward Israel's heavily traveled coastal highway. At least 15,000 residents were evacuated.

In a country as small as Israel, where territory is at the heart of political conflict, every inch of land is especially precious. Nevertheless, Israel has neglected to invest in the equipment and personnel needed to effectively combat wildfires that have become pervasive in recent years amid unseasonably high temperatures and periods of drought. In a country of 7 million, there are only 1,500 firefighters.

This winter has been one of the hottest and driest on record. Jerusalem rabbis this week held a special prayer for rain at the Western Wall, the holiest place where Jews can pray.

Fires this year ravaged parts of the disputed Golan Heights and charred nature preserves on Jerusalem's outskirts. Israel used its entire 200-ton stock of fire-retarding chemicals battling those outbreaks, so it had none on hand when the latest fire erupted.

The country boasts the region's most powerful military and is often among the first to send rescue teams to disasters abroad, but it could not handle this fire alone.

"Our firefighting measures cannot provide an answer to forest fires of this magnitude, especially in the face of such winds. We do not have such equipment,'' Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said Friday.

The fire has sparked a rally of international support at a time when Israel has felt isolated diplomatically. Turkey, which has had a strained relationship with Israel since Israeli troops seized a Gaza-bound Turkish aid ship in May, sent two planes. Britain, Greece, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Russia and Jordan also sent help. Turkey and Greece set aside their political differences and flew sorties together to douse the flames.

The evacuations in the north recalled the mass flight of Israelis southward to escape Katyusha rocket fire by the Lebanese militant group, Hezbollah, during a 2006 war. Acknowledgments by authorities Thursday night that they had no control of the fire raised questions about Israel's readiness to cope with another such barrage, analysts said.

After the 2006 war, a national inquiry found that Israel's fire services were underfunded and unprepared and recommended an investment in firefighting aircraft. But even as Israel prepares to acquire hundreds of millions of dollars worth of advanced fighter jets, no budget has been allocated for the much cheaper aerial firefighters.

The Carmel fire will be painful for many Jews abroad; raising money to plant a tree in Israel has been a mission of the diaspora Jewish community for decades.

American Jews who attended Hebrew schools grew up putting pocket change in blue-and-white charity boxes issued by the Jewish National Fund for the tree-planting effort. Experts said it would take at least 50 years to restore the Carmel Forest.


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