December 2010 Israel and Middle East News Review
By David Dolan
FIRE AND RAIN AMID RECORD TOURSIM
As in many other parts of the world, December was a month of extreme weather conditions in Israel, helping to spark off the deadliest ever forest fire in the country's short modern history, followed by heavy rains which fell later in the month. Ironically, the huge conflagration in the Carmel forest near the port city of Haifa helped improve severely strained relations with Turkey. It also added to growing cooperation between Israel and Greece. The Palestinian Authority even got into the act, sending a firefighting squad to help Israel battle the devastating blaze.
As is the case with many things in the Jewish state, the massive fire—Israel's worst ever natural disaster—also had security implications, revealing a major deficiency in the country's potential war-fighting capability. This led to pointed criticism of the government and the military, with many charging that neither body is adequately prepared to deal with the likelihood that any future confrontation involving major missile strikes could ignite raging fires like the one which left scores of Israelis dead in early December. Vowing that his government would learn the necessary lessons from the huge blaze, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu called for the establishment of a regional firefighting team that would be mutually beneficial to all participating countries.
As the local Christian community was preparing to celebrate the Christmas and New Year holidays, a brutal terrorist assault upon two believing women dominated Israel's media headlines. The attack, in a forest near Jerusalem, left an American Christian tourist dead and a local Messianic Jewish believer severely wounded. This came just as the Arab town of Bethlehem began hosting large numbers of Christian visitors for the annual holiday season at the end of a year when Israeli tourism numbers broke all previous records.
American government officials continued their efforts to jumpstart stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks during December as the Palestinian Authority again stated it would declare unilateral statehood during the second half of 2011. Meanwhile a series of South American countries, led by Brazil, announced that they already recognize the existence of such a state, with the eastern half of Jerusalem as its capital. American and European officials said once again that any statehood declaration must be arrived at in cooperation with Israel, which is naturally the Netanyahu government's official position as well.
As the second anniversary of the Israeli ‘Cast Iron' military operation against Hamas militia forces in the Gaza Strip drew near, militant Palestinians stepped up rocket attacks on Israeli civilian centers in the vicinity of the Hamas-ruled Palestinian coastal zone. This in turn prompted return IDF fire upon Palestinian targets. Later in the month, a new "humanitarian aid" convoy, designed to break Israel's naval blockade of the sealed-off zone, was reportedly being assembled in Lebanon. News reports said it was mainly comprised of participants from Muslim countries in Asia. This came as security analysts reported that a software virus had crippled a significant portion of Iran's nuclear centrifuge enrichment facility in the city of Natanz.
CARMEL FOREST FIRE DEVESTATES ISRAEL
Numerous security analysts predict that future Middle East wars may well be fought over dwindling fresh water resources in the parched, semi-arid region. During the first few years of the 21st century, Israel and surrounding countries enjoyed average, or even above average, winter rainfalls. This followed several years of severe drought conditions which prevailed during the second half of the 1990s. Rain shortfalls began to reappear once again during the winter of 2004-05. This pattern has continued uninterrupted ever since. Meanwhile, growing regional populations are demanding more and more water for home, commercial and agricultural use.
During the first Palestinian uprising in the late 1980s and early 90s, Arab arsonists took advantage of overly dry conditions to light forest fires in many parts of the country. They did the same thing during the Al Aksa attrition war which began in late 2000, but mainly during the hot summer months when rain rarely falls in the region. Despite this history, police investigators said Israel's deadliest forest fire ever, which broke out the first day of December in the Mount Carmel forest south of Haifa, was not started by Palestinian arsonists for nationalistic reasons. Instead, the destructive blaze was thought to have been inadvertently set off by some Israeli Druze teenagers who police said were smoking apple-spiced tobacco in a water pipe in a grove of trees near their Druze village, wishing to avoid detection by their family. In the end, the alleged perpetrators became nationally known figures who were arrested and charged with carelessly tossing glowing embers into tinder-dry scrub brush and trees, igniting the ferocious inferno.
Normally, the biblical "early rains" have already begun to water the Lord's special land by the middle of October, or at least by the beginning of November. However by early December 2010, the overall drought pattern of recent years left Israel with above-average temperatures and precious little rainfall. Coupled with high winds, the Carmel wildfire rapidly spread in the thick forest as Israeli firefighters scrambled to battle it.
The conflagration raced in the direction of a security prison located in the forest, which houses hundreds of inmates. To help evacuate the endangered convicts from the area, a busload of Israeli prison guard trainees was traveling on a road toward the prison when the spreading fire suddenly overtook them, setting their bus ablaze. Security personnel traveling in vehicles behind the bus, including Ahuva Tomer, Haifa's first-ever female police chief, rushed to the scene after the transport bus erupted in flames. They scurried out of their vehicles to help rescue the trapped Israeli trainees. Tomer, who was well known and widely respected for heading up Israel's largest police force in an adroit manner, soon discovered that her own clothing had caught fire, as did several other rescuers.
Meantime the forest fire galloped forward like a consuming demon, fed by furious winds made stronger by the intense heat generated in the area by the raging blaze. By the end of the day, a shocking 41 Israelis were burnt to death or asphyxiated by the fast-moving conflagration, 36 of them inside the destroyed bus. Two policemen and one firefighter also perished. Tomer clung to her life in Haifa's Rambam hospital for several days before succumbing to her burn wounds, bringing the overall death toll to 42, with several others injured.
MANY NATIONS JOIN THE BATTLE
As medical personnel around the small country were put on high alert to receive potential patients, two major highways along the coast that run south to Tel Aviv were quickly closed due to heavy smoke blanketing them. Rescue units and firefighters were brought in from many localities. Israeli police forces then ordered the evacuation of thousands of homes located along the edge of the Carmel forest, and therefore in the potential path of the fast moving fire. They also told thousands of area residents to be ready to leave their dwellings on short notice. Around 17,000 people were eventually forced to abandon their homes. As thick smoke engulfed Israel's third largest urban area, Haifa city officials shut down Haifa University and other public institutions in the vicinity of the blaze. They also placed several neighborhoods on alert for possible short-notice abandonment.
In the end, a total of 170 homes caught fire, leaving most of them badly damaged or destroyed. Over 12,500 acres of forest land was burnt up, killing or seriously damaging hundreds of thousands of trees in what is one of Israel's premier national forests. Making the fire all the more fierce, security forces intercepted several people who were caught in the act of setting additional blazes in the forest. Two of the arsonists were young Druze men who were filmed by an Israeli drone aircraft as they were sparking off more fires. Officials warned that anyone caught setting fires would be severely prosecuted. However this did not stop several more arson attacks in the week after the Carmel blaze began.
After it became embarrassingly clear that Israel's 11 firefighting aircraft were not nearly enough to successfully control the growing inferno, Prime Minister Netanyahu convened an early morning emergency cabinet meeting the second day of the blaze to discuss firefighting options with his government ministers. Realizing Israel could not put out the forest fire by itself, he then issued an unprecedented public plea for help from any country willing to send aid. Some twenty countries rapidly responded to the request, sending a total of 24 aircraft and hundreds of men. Despite severely strained diplomatic relations between Ankara and Jerusalem in the wake of last May's deadly military clash at sea, the participating countries included Turkey. Neighboring Greece also sent substantial aid, along with Jordan, Russia, the US, UK and Canada.
Suffering itself from frequent devastating summer forest fires, the government in Athens sent four aircraft, as did France. Three arrived from Great Britain, along with two each from Spain, Russia, Turkey, Cyprus, and Bulgaria. Single airplanes were sent by Croatia and Azerbaijan. A 747 American cargo jet flew out of New York City filled with fire retardants and firefighters from the state, along with experts serving with the US Forest Service. One of the planes sent by Moscow is thought to be the largest firefighting aircraft on earth.
PM Netanyahu profusely thanked and praised the countries that sent vital aid, with many of the aircraft scooping up water from the nearby Mediterranean Sea to dump on the spreading flames. He especially commended Greece and Turkey for their efforts, and also thanked Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas for sending a mixed Christian-Muslim firefighting team from the city of Bethlehem. The Palestinian squad's participation in the battle was welcome news in Israel, with several of the Arab men telling reporters that Israeli soldiers have helped them put out local fires in the past. Nearly 200 firefighters received Israeli Air Force medals at the end of the aid mission to honor their heroic efforts, with one IAF commander telling the honorees that "Israel was met by a disaster, but you were there to prove your true friendship."
It took five days of grueling Israeli and international efforts to finally put out the disastrous conflagration. The hard work was speeded up by a cold front that swept into the area, bringing with it the first soaking rains of the season. PM Netanyahu ordered that 2,500 shekels (about 700 US dollars) be given to every individual who was directly affected by the Carmel forest fire. The Jewish National Fund said it raised over 1.5 million dollars in just one week to help reforest the devastated area, saying it would need another eight million to adequately complete the job. However, experts say the land must rest at least one year before any new saplings can be planted.
As officials began to assess the extensive damage caused by the deadly fire, many of the international crews who helped battle the blaze were busy making their way some 50 miles north to Beirut, where a large forest fire—one of 120 that erupted in Lebanon in early December—was threatening to engulf portions of the Lebanese capital city. Meteorologists say the spate of forest fires along the eastern Mediterranean basin early in the month were largely the result of the dearth of rainfall in the region over the past year, which has amounted to only 25% of normal totals.
The Israeli public was clearly shocked to discover that their country was not equipped to contain the forest fire on its own. Many commentators pointed to the rash of fires that erupted in 2006 as a result of the massive Hizbullah rocket blitz which struck the northern third of the country that summer. Given frequent warnings from military and government officials that Israel's next war will undoubtedly feature an even heavier, countrywide missile bombardment, many asked why was the government was not far more prepared to fight one single forest fire, even if it was a relatively large conflagration.
Many fingers were pointed in the direction of Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who oversees the operations and budgets of Israel's municipal fire departments. It was especially noted that the Orthodox Shas party leader had refused to accept any further donations of firefighting equipment offered by the American-based International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which had donated eight fire trucks to Galilee region fire departments in the wake of the 2006 war. Headed by an Orthodox American Jew, the group had attempted to send additional aid after Yishai became Interior Minister in early 2008, but was reportedly turned down due to allegations by some Shas leaders that it engages in clandestine missionary work. Other exclusively Christian aid groups reported similar turndowns. Calls came from many quarters for the Shas leader to resign his post. Yishai replied that he would remain at his desk, calling the demands for his resignation a "lynching" by anti-Orthodox citizens scrambling to find a scapegoat for the worst forest fire in Israel's history.
It was not only commentators and politicians who harshly criticized government authorities for their apparent lack of adequate preparations to suppress significant forest fires. Israeli State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss issued a sharp rebuke over the official response to the Carmel fire, laying most of the blame on the Interior Ministry. He wrote that Eli Yishai and his predecessor, Kadima party Knesset member Meir Sheetrit, had not learned the lessons they should have from the 2006 conflict with the Lebanese Shiite Hizbullah militia. He opined that the government has "hardly begun to address the many deficiencies in the emergency response aspect of Home Front defense" that became evident during the conflict. Even more disturbing, the Comptroller warned that Israeli response teams are "in danger of collapse" if another large-scale disaster takes place, whether it be natural or man caused.
DEADLY TERROR ASSAULT NEAR JERUSALEM
Exactly one week before Christmas, two female friends went for a hike in a forest southwest of Jerusalem near the town of Beit Shemesh. One of the women, Kay Wilson, is an Israeli immigrant from the UK, while the second was her friend and co-worker, Kristine Luken from America. Two Arab men spotted the hikers and approached them, asking for some drinking water. Then they tied each of them up and rummaged through their bags, stealing valuable contents before repeatedly stabbing them with a knife. Luken quickly perished from her wounds while Wilson, an Israeli believer, faked being dead to put a halt to the atrocious stabbing barrage. She subsequently managed to recruit help from some Israelis picnicking in the area.
The slain American worked for the London-based CMJ ministry, whose local headquarters is adjacent to the oldest Protestant church in Jerusalem, the Old City's Anglican Christchurch, located just inside Jaffa Gate. Wilson is a tour guide with Shoresh Tours, based in the Christchurch compound guesthouse. David Pillegi, the church's American-born rector, said the local believing community was in "shock and mourning" over the vicious, unprovoked assault. Israeli police confirmed that the attack was "nationalistically motivated," meaning it was a terror assault possibly sparked off by the fact that Wilson was wearing a Jewish Star of David around her neck. They arrested two Arab suspects several days after the incident took place, although a police gag order prevented their identities from being publicly revealed.
Speaking at a well-attended memorial service at Christchurch three days before Christmas, Robin Aldridge, who heads up the CMJ office in London where Luken worked as an administrator since 2009, commended the deceased victim for what he termed her "beautiful and gentle spirit, as well as her strong and vibrant faith." She was also highly praised by other speakers for her deep love of Israel and the Jewish people. Some local Messianic leaders noted that Luken's murder, as tragic as it was, later had the effect of testifying to the Israeli public about her sincere faith in Israel's God, along with reminding them of widespread international Christian support for the often isolated Jewish state.
MORE ROCKETS FROM GAZA
Beginning the first week of December, Palestinian groups in the Gaza Strip unleashed a series of rocket barrages upon Israeli civilian communities and military positions in the area. Officials said over 30 mortar shells were fired over a period of two weeks, along with 10 even more destructive Kassam rockets. A Kornet anti-tank missile was also fired at an IDF tank operating along the border, penetrating its metal shell but failing to explode. A 14 year old Israeli girl was later wounded when a rocket crashed down next to a kindergarten on a kibbutz south of the coastal city of Ashkelon. This prompted the strongest IDF response in some time, with air strikes launched upon eight separate Hamas militia positions. This in turn caused Hamas leaders to order a halt to the assaults, which were said to have been mostly carried out by the Iranian-backed Islamic Jihad terror group. IDF chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi told Knesset members that the atmosphere in the Gaza Strip remains "fragile and volatile."
Some Israeli commentators said that Palestinian groups may have been emboldened to act after several South American countries announced in December that they officially recognize the existence of a Palestinian state in both the Gaza Strip and inside the pre-1967 West Bank ceasefire lines, which includes the eastern half of Jerusalem. Regional powerhouse Brazil led the charge, followed by Argentina, Uruguay and Bolivia. This came as PA Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad said he was making progress toward fulfilling his earlier stated goal of unilaterally declaring the formation of such a state before the end of 2011. PA leaders also asked the European Union to join the recognition bandwagon despite earlier pronouncements from several leading EU countries that any future Palestinian state should not be established unilaterally, but be created in cooperation with Israel.
Israeli defense officials would not publicly comment on a report issued by a Washington- based security institute claiming a computer virus named Stuxnet has hampered Iran's ability to produce nuclear weapons in the near future. The report said that at least 1,000 uranium enrichment centrifuges at Iran's largest nuclear facility in the city of Natanz had been effectively deactivated by the virus, which is around one-tenth of the overall total. The head of Iran's Atomic Energy Agency, Ali Akbar Salehi, said in December that the virus had been introduced into the country several months ago by what he termed "Western interests." Iran's confirmation that a cyber virus has been attacking its nuclear-linked computers came as the IDF formally inaugurated a military battalion in December called Yanshuf, designed to deal with an unconventional nuclear, biological or chemical attack upon the small country.
Despite continuing tensions in the region, nearly 3.5 million tourists visited the Promised Land during 2010, which is a 14% increase over the previous record year of 2008. Tourism officials are preparing for another banner year in 2011. Whatever lies ahead, may the New Year bring you blessings from on high, from the Lord God of Israel who "guards your going out and your coming in from this time forth and forever" (Psalm 121:8).
DAVID DOLAN is a Jerusalem-based author and journalist who has lived and worked in Israel since 1980.