Criticism mounts over Israel's 'unpreparedness' for wildfire

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Israel's hard-pressed emergency services appeared close to bringing the worst wildfire in the country's history under control last night as political leaders sought to fend off mounting criticism of the country's unpreparedness for such a disaster.

An American Boeing 747 carrying 20,000 gallons of water and fire retardants arrived to spearhead a large-scale international effort by 34 aircraft to douse the fire, still burning four days after it first swept through the densely wooded Carmel hills south-east of Haifa, killing 41 people.

Shimon Romach, the Israeli fire chief, said: "We have gained control of the fire, I say this with a restrained smile... you can't have a real smile on a day like this."

Yitzhak Herzog, a prominent Labour minister in Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition Cabinet, said: "We need to take stock nationally as to how we, as such an advanced, sophisticated state, achieved such a resounding failure."

Boaz Rakia, a spokesman for the fire service – widely regarded as seriously undermanned and under-equipped – acknowledged it would still take days to extinguish the blaze altogether.

Among those joining the emergency effort from outside Israel were 21 Palestinian firemen from the West Bank who are normally prohibited from crossing the border. Their leader, Ibrahim Ayish, from Bethlehem, said the move had no direct bearing on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, adding: "I hope it could be a good opening for co-operation, more humanitarian assistance and peace."

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas was among many international leaders expressing his condolences for the dead, most of whom were cadet prison guards called to the area to help evacuate inmates of a local prison.

Israel's police spokesman, Micky Rosenfeld, confirmed yesterday that two arrested teenaged boys from a Druze village in the area were being questioned on suspicion of having negligently caused the fire. Israeli media said they were suspected of igniting the forest by careless use of a water pipe and a bonfire.

Much of the media and political criticism focused on Interior Minister Eli Yishai, leader of the ultra-orthodox party Shas, whose department is responsible for the fire service, which the fireman's association said has one fireman for every 7,000 people compared with one per 1,000 to 1,200 in most European countries.

Mr Yishai hastened over the weekend to defend himself by calling for a commission of enquiry, blaming his predecessors for serial neglect, and claiming that he had done "whatever we could" to increase the budget of the firefighting services. But media critics pointed to the combative right-wing minister's repeated and contrasting success in securing large funding increases for his own religious constituency in pre-budget discussions. Yaron Dekel, host of a popular radio talk show, echoed many commentators by declaring: "In a proper country, after such a failure, you simply go home."

There was little immediate sign that Mr Yishai would be forced to resign however, not least because of the pivotal role played by Shas in successive Israeli Cabinets, including Mr Netanyahu's, where the Interior Minister has been prominent in opposing any suggestion of a freeze on building Jewish settlements, especially in East Jerusalem.

Seeking to focus debate on future measures rather than an immediate post-mortem into a fire which has destroyed an estimated 12,000 acres of Israel's most precious woodland, Mr Netanyahu called for swift action to rehabilitate the affected area and compensate victims. "I don't want delays. I don't want red tape. I want processes to be shortened and rapid solutions," he said at the outset of yesterday's weekly Cabinet meeting.