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Israel Recruits Firefighting Aid as Blaze Spreads

More firefighting aircraft arrived in Israel today and will arrive tomorrow from Europe and the U.S. to help stop a forest blaze near the port city of Haifa that is spreading after killing at least 41 people and forcing 17,000 to flee their homes.

The fire, described by Israeli officials as the worst in the country’s history, has forced the government to turn to the international community for assistance. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a televised press conference that the aircraft Israel has received from the international community are crucial in stopping the blaze

“This battle will be decided in the air, by airpower, and by the weather, the combination of the two,” Netanyahu said. While describing the fire as a “difficult crisis,” he said it made clear that “many nations of the world stand by the people of Israel - and that’s not a small thing.”

Since the blaze started two days ago, Israel has received 13 firefighting planes and helicopters from the U.S., U.K., Greece, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Turkey, France, Russia, Italy and Jordan. Another six planes and three helicopters are expected to arrive today from the U.S., France, Russia and Switzerland, and tomorrow nine more planes from the U.S., Spain and Germany.

“It will likely take some 24 to 48 hours to fully contain the fire, which is contained in some areas and has spread to others,” Micky Rosenfeld, a police spokesman, said in a phone interview.

Two Arrests

Two men were arrested today for causing the initial fire that broke out two days ago by what appears to be negligence, Rosenfeld said, without providing more details because the investigation is ongoing. Two other men were arrested yesterday on suspicion of deliberately lighting secondary fires not connected with the main blaze, police said.

The Israeli prime minister spoke yesterday with President Barack Obama about the need for more aid, Netanyahu’s office said in a statement. “President Obama said that he is putting the highest priority to transfer urgent aid to Israel,” the statement said.

“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.

Abbas, Turkish Aid

Netanyahu said he had a “warm” discussion today with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who offered any assistance he could to help Israel with the fire. The U.S. is trying to restart peace talks between the Israelis and Palestinians that broke down in September over the issue of construction West Bank settlements.

Two Turkish firefighting planes were dispatched on the instructions of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, the Turkish Foreign Ministry said. At a 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 Turkish citizens 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. Chemicals

The U.S. is sending three experts to offer technical assistance on aerial firefighting, Nancy Lindborg, an assistant administrator at the U.S. Agency for International Development, told reporters on a conference call. The team arrives this weekend, she said.

At the request of the Israeli government, the U.S. is also sending 45 metric tons of fire-retarding chemicals used for aerial spraying and 12,000 liters of foam to help suppress fires on structures.

Most of the 41 confirmed dead were killed on Dec. 2 in a bus carrying prison guards on their way to help evacuate a prison endangered by the flames, Rosenfeld said.

Officials aren’t yet able 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 Dec. 2 in the Carmel hills south 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.

About 12,500 acres of forest have been destroyed by the fire, Efi Stenzler, Chairman of the Jewish National Fund that plants trees in Israel, told Channel 2 television.

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