J.J. Goldberg

As Forest Burns, Fire Gear Is AWOL: Israel Gives 'Low Priority to Anything That Doesn't Shoot'

By J.J. Goldberg

The fire in the Carmel is horrible, and the deaths are painful and deeply felt. But the tragedy that played out wasn’t a twist of fate or an act of God. It was an act of persistent, long-term, almost willful government negligence. Israel has almost no firefighting capacity—pitifully few firefighters working with a tiny stock of aging and dilapidated equipment. I’ve got some comparative statistics below on Israel’s fire-fighting preparedness compared to other countries.

The point is that the government has been confronted over and over with the problem and refused to address it. It’s an old Israeli habit, once charmingly rakish, that’s becoming increasingly self-destructive: improvising, making due, dismissing contingency planning as something for sissies.The widely respected journalist-commentator Ron Ben-Yishai, quoted below, says the government gives low priority to “anything that doesn’t shoot.”

Here’s a glaring example: The fire began Thursday as a localized blaze in a garbage dump just outside the Druze village of Isfiya. It quickly spread out of control, in large measure because Israel doesn’t have a single piece of firefighting aircraft, a key tool in fighting modern forest fires. A couple of these planes - big tankers that dump thousands of gallons onto a fire - could have controlled the blaze before it spread out of control if they had been deployed in the first hours. Instead, Israel had to ask other countries for aircraft, and they didn’t arrive until the second day. By that time the entire Carmel was ablaze. Kibbutz Bet Oren had burned to the ground.

According to Yediot Ahronot, which had excellent next-day coverage of the outbreak, the government has been asked repeatedly to authorize the purchase of two planes but has repeatedly turned down the request. The fire service arranged several years for a Canadian company to bring a plane to Israel for a demonstration run, but the government (under Ariel Sharon at the time) wouldn’t bite. Not long after that, two used planes were tracked down that could have been purchased for less than $5 million total. Still no dice.

Journalist Ron Ben-Yishai, in a column on the Ynet website, compares the disaster to Hurricane Katrina:

The first indication of America’s undermined status as an economic and political power was not the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the mortgage crisis. It was Hurricane Katrina that exposed the U.S. Administration’s helplessness in all areas, ranging from the collapse of New Orleans dams, which the local government failed to maintain, to the outrageous performance of the federal emergency agency, which prompted that deaths of hundreds and caused many more to lose their homes.

This served as further evidence for a rule identified by historians a while ago: The moment a regime neglects the national, physical and human infrastructure and allows them to crumble, the state’s or empire’s collapse as a functioning body able to provide physical security and the vital needs of citizens begins. …

The State of Israel is at the onset of this slippery slope. It suffers from a grave water shortage because of the delayed construction of desalination plants, and the roads are jammed while lethal car accidents abound because of the absence of decent public transportation infrastructure. Yet the gravest issue is the neglect of rescue and firefighting services, which suffer chronic under-investment in equipment and manpower. …

Ben-Yishai compares the fire damage to Israel’s past (and perhaps future, God forbid) experience with home-front damage from missile strikes, and argues that the government isn’t willing to look the issue in the face:

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The Flotilla Was a Killer

By J.J. Goldberg

Israel got suckered, the same way it gets suckered over and over. It walks into situations where it will inevitably come out looking like a bully, arouses worldwide anger and then gets indignant when it’s condemned. It’s like watching Charlie Brown charge the football, knowing that Lucy will snatch it away as she always does.

Here’s how Haaretz intelligence maven Yossi Melman summed it up:

Time and again, Israel tries to prove that what can’t be solved by force can be solved by more force. Over and over, the policies of force fail. The problem is that with each failure, the part of the world in which we would like to belong is losing patience with us.

As for the bloodshed at sea, the verdict isn’t so clear cut, and it’s important to draw a clear line between the boneheaded thinking of the Israeli government that walked into this situation and the actions of the Israeli troops who were sent into action. Israel had made it plain that it intended to stop the convoy by force if necessary, which is how naval blockades work for better or (mostly) worse, so the passengers had a pretty good idea of what to expect. On the other hand, the convoy had presented itself as a humanitarian mission of peace activists, suggesting that the Israeli boarding party could expect to find the passengers holding hands and singing “We Shall Overcome.” Opening fire would be senseless. That, of course, is the scenario that’s captured the world’s imagination and ire.

But that’s not how it turned out. The Israeli commandos came rappelling down from a helicopter one by one and were greeted with knives and iron bars. In case you’ve missed it, here’s what it looked like:

You could call that lots of things, but nonviolent resistance and peace activism don’t spring to mind. Gandhi and King taught that you take the blows of the oppressor and never fight back, and by your moral example you awaken the humanity of the other side. They never said anything about whacking the crap out of them.

Yediot Ahronot military columnist Ron Ben-Yishai wrote a blow-by-blow from the troops’ perspective.

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