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The Only Democracy? » Featured » The Deadly Fires: Israel’s Katrina?

The Deadly Fires: Israel’s Katrina?

The Israeli authorities announced Sunday night that the fire ranging in the Carmel hills since Thursday, Israel’s most devastating fire on record, is now under control.

An even worse disaster was averted. The fire did not seriously spread into Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city, or its suburb Tirat HaCarmel. The main reason for the unacceptably high death toll, estimated at 40+ persons – far larger than any single terror attack on Israelis since 1978 – was irresponsibility in sending unprepared unprotected personnel right into the fire, esp. one tragic bus of prison-service cadets.

Will this disaster open Israelis’ eyes like Hurricane Katrina did for many Americans? Some obvious questions are, how come a nation with the world’s most celebrated air force has zero air firefighting capabilities and relies on outside help? Or, why have the forces run out of fire retardants already in the first day?

There’s far more if one scratches the surface.

0. The Theme is HUBRIS

I see this post as an (unplanned) part of the “Lost Decade in Israel-Palestine” diary series announced a few weeks ago.

The underlying theme here is undue hubris and its inevitable results. This has been a chronic problem in Israeli mentality since 1967. One would think that the thumping Israel received only six years after 1967 in the 1973 war, a scandal of which Israelis were reminded only a few weeks ago with the release of yet another batch of embarrassing documents – that 1973 would have taught us the danger of hubris once and for all. But nothing seems to help. Stupid arrogance keeps raising its ugly head and taking over Israeli minds time and again. It seems that Occupation Israel (that is, the post-1967 entity which defines itself on the ground via the colonization of regions beyond its legal borders and the control of their foreign populations) requires hubris in order to exist.

Talk to nearly any mainstream Israeli, and very quickly you’ll see that we are trained to believe in our innate superiority over the rest of the Middle East, especially the Palestinians. A superiority that requires no proof and cherry-picks reality to justify itself. Even worse, since the 1990’s thanks to successes in the hi-tech arena, many Israelis now believe we are better than just about anyone in the world. Israel’s rather anomalous escape, thus far, from the worst of the current economic crisis (an escape which to my humble mind lacks proper explanation) has cemented the case that we Israelis are so smart while the rest of the world are, well, idiots.

I heard a classic example a few weeks ago on NPR. Israel’s government announced a massive alternative energy research initiative (or as Israelis prefer to call it, “Clean-tech”). Quite a few Israeli scientists and companies are among world leaders in this field – esp. solar energy – but thus far the government actually spent very little on this, and Israel’s power is virtually all from fossil-fuel sources. This didn’t stop PM Netanyahu from announcing that the initiative will turn Israel into the world leader in clean technology. Not “contributing to the greening of the globe”, not “being among world leaders”, not “joining other nations in the effort” – but “the world leader”, plain and simple. Like, China and its massive recent investments, Japan and its amazing work on solar grids, Denmark and its wind energy, and all the rest – they are nothing compared to us once we decide an issue is important enough to merit our attention.

I heard this news story, presented as usual in American media with very little in the way of criticism, and felt hmmm…. this arrogance thing is going a bit too far now. Wonder what will happen to teach it a lesson. And there we go. It didn’t take long.

1. The Major Culprit is GLOBAL WARMING

Israel-Palestine is (roughly speaking) bisected by the border between two global climate zones. The northwest is the end of the Mediterranean region and the southeast is the beginning of the Arabian desert. Border regions like this are potentially very sensitive to climate change.

Traditionally the Mediterranean part had a hot bone-dry summer from April/May to September/October. The cooler half of the year (calling it “winter” would be a gross overstatement for those of you knowing what a real winter looks like) is characterized by bouts of rainstorms, often heavy, separated by days to weeks of the most beautiful weather – bright, cool to warmish, and green.

Since the 1980’s most summers has been not only hotter and hotter, but also creeping up on the rainy season and making it shorter and warmer. And this decade it has become downright bizarre. We left Israel in late 2002, and until then I’d never heard of heat waves in February. I’m talking over-30 degrees C (for F-trapped folks, this is around 90), in February. Since 2003 or so, this has been happening almost every year. And the end of summer has been pushed out further and further – until this year summer simply has not ended. The heat never stopped, the rains never came.

The first week of December 2010 in Israel-Palestine saw 30+ degrees and easterly desert winds. The Carmel region, usually mild, has been among the hottest. Imagine the hills above Ventura California simmering under Santa Ana winds and 90-degree temperatures in December with no rain in sight. “Tinderbox conditions” is an understatement to describe how volatile the Carmel forests – one of Israel-Palestine’s largest and finest remaining patches of natural woods – have become. So it was a fire waiting to happen.

There is universal agreement that this is the main cause of the fire. But eerily, most Israelis still don’t take global warming seriously, if they believe it at all. This is part of the Lost Decade’s mental divorce between Israel’s elites and their traditional allies, Western liberals. 20 years ago whatever Western liberals thought, Israelis tended to agree. Now it’s the opposite – anything Western liberals and progressives think is immediately suspect to Israeli eyes – so global warming deniers are having a field day in Israel. Even our political leadership’s new-found love for green technology is presented as (and probably is) motivated by the wish to diminish the power of Arab and Iranian oil, rather than having anything to do with climate change.

Will Israelis now wake up and notice that, um, the country is in fact getting too hot for comfort? And that we know why this is happening and how it should be mitigated?

2. Government Rot, and the USSR Analogy

Global warming might be the major culprit, but there is also a more immediate band of hooligans to blame. No, these are not the two teenage Druze brothers ages 15 and 14, whom the police is holding in jail as suspects for accidentally causing the fire (talk about scapegoating!).

Rather, these are successive Israeli governments who have decided, to put it bluntly, that the country does not need a firefighting infrastructure. In Israel there is 1 firefighter per 7000 residents, compared with 1 per 1000 in most comparable nations. The air force used to have helicopters with fire-fighting capabilities, but after the dips in the sea to draw water had rusted the beasts it dismantled those capabilities some 10-15 years ago. The treasury’s economists decided it is not worthwhile to maintain a civilian air firefighting fleet in their stead. And so, on Thursday the only air capabilities available are 8 private chemical-spraying planes, that took hours to put into operation. Israel begged around from its neighbors to send their airplanes. Finally, the same economists had also determined that it is not cost-effective to maintain a sufficient stock of fire retardants. Thus, the forces ran out of material within the first day. All this has been known and alerted about for years. Only a couple of weeks ago it was debated in the Knesset.

Parts of the Israeli media prefer to focus on the trees not the forest. They say the problem is the distribution of authority – budgets are centrally controlled by the treasury, instead of local authorities and individual ministries having more independence. But the problem is not in the system’s details, but in economic mindset and political culture. Those will not change with a few shuffles of the deck chairs.

The neoliberal mindset has spread in Israel like the Plague. One can understand why: the quasi-socialist regime we’ve had until the 70’s (and in many respects till 1990 or so) was far more like the corrupt and inept Eastern European model, than the successful Western European social-democracies. By 1980 Israelis were sick of waiting years to get a phone line, waiting forever at various government ministries, etc. etc. Private companies, the Serious People told us, would do everything more efficiently and at a lower cost. So since the 1980’s, Israel’s economy has become an experimental playground for Milton Friedman believers, causing one economic meltdown after the other. And still most Israelis believe in neoliberalism.

One man is responsible more than anyone else for the dismantling process: current Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu. This is not often realized, but Bibi has been far more damaging, and far more extreme, in his economic policies than in his conflict-related policies. Since 1996 he has dominated economic policies for 8 out of 14 years – 5 years as PM and 3 years as finance minister. He has privatized everything in sight (including, for example, the unemployment services!), reduced services and pensions – and embarked on a radical diet for what he calls “the Fat Man of government”. No wonder then, that as PM in 1998 he ignored the strong recommendations of a special committee, to strengthen the firefighting infrastructure.

This is the mindset. The culture is that of endemic, systemic government corruption. As Israeli blogger Tsvika Besor reminds us (Hebrew link), when it comes to the number of ministers this Netanyahu government is actually the Fattest Man on record, with 30 ministers 9 of whom do not even have a portfolio. The officially estimated cost of these superfluous ministers – 126 million NIS per year – far outstrips all the “savings” from passing up on firefighting. This is the same government whose head speaks high and mighty every other day about the need to buckle up and cut public services.

It is a culture of shamelessness, of pigging out at the public’s expense. Israel’s early politicians had their faults. Big time. But at least they were committed to nation-building and lived relatively modest lives. The last of this breed was Rabin; not coincidentally he was murdered in 1995. The idea of the government actually trying to solve the nation’s problems and being responsible and accountable in any way, rather than waste time and money and dish out goodies to its favored cronies, was already too outdated then.

I’ve been planning this “Katrina” diary for a couple of days, meanwhile Amir Oren in Haaretz “stole” my title. Oren is a rather centrist and not very bright military analyst, but this time he seems to get it right:

At the press briefing on Thursday, ministers and five three-star generals were seated alongside Netanyahu. The heads of the IDF, the prison service, the police, fire and rescue service and Magen David Adom were there as well. It was an impressive in the same way that the rostrum of Communist notables during October Revolution Day celebrations at Red Square was impressive. And the actual level of efficiency it projected was akin to the decrepit Soviet system which crashed and burned.

Again, Oren is reading my mind. For a while I’ve been thinking about the USSR-Israel analogy. The last disaster highlighted that Israel is not an all-around player. We can have a huge airforce but no air firefighting. We build one of the world’s best tanks, but never mastered the art of building a proper passenger car. Other gaps abound: a deteriorating education system, a farming sector that was once the pride of the nation and is now nearly extinct, and zero earthquake preparedness despite living right on the Great Syrian-African Rift Valley and getting hit by devastating earthquakes about once in 80 years (last time: in the 1920’s ;). Similarly, conventional wisdom back in the 1960’s to 1980’s held that if the Soviets can build a space program that gives the US a run for its money, and maintain the world’s most formidable military – then they probably know how to maintain other systems as well. Not.

Moreover, like the latter-day Soviets, Israelis increasingly see the world as a hostile entity that doesn’t appreciate us and treats us unfairly no matter what. We have given up communicating with the world except via propaganda slogans. Like the USSR, Israel’s early-day idealism has given way to systemic corruption that rots the entire political system. Finally, like the Soviets Israel’s government has painted itself into the corner of maintaining an untenable and morally indefensible regime, and rely on spinning the citizens’ attention away from this basic fact using fear-mongering and increasingly stupid propaganda.

I will end this rant with a translation of this excerpt from a brilliant post by Roni Hirsch on the Israeli progressive blog HaEmori:

The meditative watching of the fires consuming everything that we had known and loved not long ago, this pleasant helplessness when all is lost…what can be more enjoyable for such a Prime Minister who cannot do anything about this right now, but remembers through the hallucinatory smoke, together with the media and the rest of Israel, that amorphous moment when this ‘disaster’ could have been prevented, was cautioned about in advance – or maybe he noticed the people warning him only out of the corner of his eye – warning that there are no fire retardants or planes, no firefighters or fire trucks. And then, this memory itself is swallowed by the smoke, sucked into the core of the immense fire.

…all these are a great reward for a deliberate policy. A policy that only rarely has the fortune to be answered by Nature and Chance, its two main counterparts. The policy, in essence, relies upon detaching of the real world towards a separate upper stratosphere made of abstractions and daydreaming. This strange dream, that one can give up the firefighting budget, the health-care system, the education system – because nothing will happen, at worst some temporary trouble from a labor union, or an unreliable report about the drop in math scores.

…because what are a few more years of useless conflict, compared with Eternity? There will always be time to try this or that, and mostly – to buy more time. Thus, without caring about overdraft, the Knesset spends hours shopping in the World Fascism Mall, buying more and more kitschy laws that it will never wear…

If for a moment we had thought someone up there does care about real time and real emergencies, that you can’t keep on holding both ends of the stick, destroying and talking, disengaging and bombing, starving out and condemning – this fire came and showed us that no one there is thinking, no one there is planning, there really is nobody home…

And one last comment: it is hard to ignore the terrible irony that this fire has taken place on the Holiday of Light and Fire. The fires raging between [Palestinian] Ein Hud and [now Jewish] Ein Hod answer like an echo, to the premeditated, cold irony of some generals who two years ago on this very same holiday embarked upon an operation named Cast Lead.

Lost Decade Diary Series

(crossposted from Daily Kos)

Written by

Assaf Oron works as a statistician and moonlights (voluntarily) as a human-rights activist and blogger. He arrived in Seattle from Israel in 2002 for studies, and for now is sticking with the local greyness, dampness and uber-politeness, while plotting his glorious repatriation to the land of eternal sunshine and rudeness. Meanwhile, he tries to explain to anyone who cares to listen, what the Occupation is and why it must be ended now, not later. Assaf is webmaster for the Israeli human rights organization "Villages Group"

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