Israeli officials under fire as deadly blaze rages

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The Independent Online

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government faced calls for consequences over a huge four-day-old forest fire that has killed 41 people and been called the worst in Israel's history.

Politicians and pundits demanded the resignation of some officials for failure to quell an inferno that has scorched 12,000 acres (5,000 hectares) of woodland, destroyed millions of trees and an estimated dozens of homes.



Criticism also came from inside Netanyahu's fractious ruling coalition. "We need to take stock nationally as to how we as such an advanced sophisticated state achieved such a resounding failure," Welfare Minister Yitzhak Herzog of the centre-left Labour Party said on Israel's Army Radio.



With Netanyahu having made a visible effort to muster global aid and monitor efforts to fight the blaze at the weekend, most critics targeted Interior Minister Eli Yishai, whose job it is to oversee the firefighters.



Many demanded that Yishai, of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, a pivotal coalition partner in Netanyahu's government, resign for inadequate preparation of the firefighting system, which has not been able to bring the blaze under control.



"In a proper country, after such a failure you simply go home," said Yaron Dekel, host of a popular Israel Radio talk show, naming both Yishai and the Israeli fire chief.



Netanyahu convened his cabinet on Sunday in Tirat Carmel, a fire-stricken town, and he pledged to rebuild the area "in the quickest possible way."



A global effort to help Israel contain the fires went on, with Germany, Switzerland and Azerbaijan expected to join a dozen other nations that have sent in firefighting equipment.



Boaz Rakiya, a spokesman for Israeli firefighters, said 34 aircraft were crisscrossing the skies above the Carmel ridge to try to quell the fires, which he said had already weakened though had not yet been brought under control.



Israel also chartered a Boeing 747 Supertanker, flown in from the United States on Sunday, and loaded it with 21,000 gallons of water and flame retardant to pour on the flames.



Help from unexpected quarters came from the occupied West Bank, where Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas dispatched three firetrucks and crew to the Haifa area, after a rare and friendly telephone chat with Netanyahu on Saturday.



An Israeli statement said Abbas had expressed condolences to for the Israelis killed in the fire on Thursday. Most were prison guard trainees who had arrived to help evacuate 500 inmates from the Damon facility near Haifa.



In contrast, Ismail Haniyeh, the Islamist Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip, a territory partly blockaded by Israel, said the fire was "a punishment by God" against the Jewish state.



Netanyahu defended Israel's need for outside assistance to cope with the blaze. "We all get help from others. It's a part of our existence as a global village," he said on Saturday.



He also asked the state comptroller to investigate "the preparedness and handling" of the fire, a statement from his office said on Sunday.



Two teenagers suspected of starting the blaze through negligence were brought to court to extend their remand on Thursday. Both were accused of having failed to extinguish a camp fire which led to the conflagration, police said.

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