Aircraft from Europe arrived in Israel today to help combat a forest fire near the port city of Haifa that killed at least 41 people and forced 15,000 to flee their homes.
Israel “can’t cope with a forest blaze of this type, accompanied by such strong winds,” without international help, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told a meeting of the Security Cabinet today in Tel Aviv, in comments broadcast on Israel’s Army Radio. Battling the blaze requires types of aircraft Israel doesn’t have, said the premier, who went to Haifa after the meeting to survey the firefighting operations.
The fire, described by officials as the worst in the country’s history, forced Israel to call for assistance from Europe. Eight planes and three helicopters arrived from Greece, Bulgaria, Cyprus and the U.K., an army spokeswoman said, speaking anonymously according to military regulation. Spain, Turkey, Croatia, France, Russia, Azerbaijan, Egypt and Romania have also pledged to send aircraft, Netanyahu’s office said.
“All the aid we’ve gotten from other countries is bringing significant improvement, but at this stage we still can’t say the fire is under control, not yet,” Israel Police Commissioner David Cohen said in a televised press conference in Haifa.
“Israel has never faced a natural disaster of this scope, where it had to call on outside help, and it might have some diplomatic implications,” said Gerald Steinberg, professor of political science at Bar Ilan University outside Tel Aviv.
Two Turkish firefighting planes were dispatched at the instructions of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said today. At the Security Cabinet meeting, Netanyahu thanked Erdogan and other leaders who offered help.
Relations between Israel and Turkey have been strained since Israeli commandos killed nine Turks in a May 31 raid on an aid flotilla seeking to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip.
“I hope this will be the beginning of better relations between our two countries,” Netanyahu told reporters in Haifa, in comments broadcast on Channel 2 television.
U.S. President Barack Obama, at a White House ceremony yesterday to celebrate the Hanukkah holiday, began by “offering our deepest condolences to the families and loved ones” of the victims of the fire and pledged to help combat it.
Prison Guards Die
Firefighters are still trying to contain the blaze. Most of the 41 confirmed dead were killed yesterday in a bus carrying prison guards on their way to help evacuate a prison endangered by the flames, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said.
Officials were unable to give an overall damage estimate from the fire, the Finance Ministry said in a statement. Most of the private and public property in the area is covered by insurance, the ministry said.
The fire began around midday yesterday in the Carmel hills south of of Haifa, a city with a population of 266,000. Exceptionally dry weather created conditions that allowed the flames to spread quickly, said Salman Abu Rukun, an employee of the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority.
Two local residents were arrested today after they were alleged to have started a fire in the area. Police are investigating the report, and it is too early to say whether it was a case of negligence or arson, Police Commissioner Cohen said without specifying whether the incident is connected to the forest fire.
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