The Carmel forest inferno:
International support for Israelís firefighting efforts

Published: 31 January 2011
Briefing Number 278

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Summary:   This Briefing describes the massive forest fire in the Carmel forest in Northern Israel, in December 2010; the international support which Israel received to combat the fire; comments of the foreign fire-fighters on their motivations; and expressions of gratitude from Israeli leaders. 

Key message: The international response to the tragic fire demonstrates the possibilities of international cooperation, and its power, even in the midst of conflict.  

The Carmel forest inferno, December 2010 – what happened?

On 2 December 2010 fires erupted in the Carmel forest in Northern Israel.  44 Israelis lost their lives including the regional chief of police, and 42 prison officers on their way by bus to evacuate prisoners away from a nearby prison to safety.   Over 40,000 dunams of land were destroyed, as well collective farms, and livelihoods.  The renowned village for orphans known as Yemin Orde was severely damaged.  It had been an exceptionally dry year in Israel, and this contributed to the speedy spread of the fire which was the worst natural disaster in Israel’s 62-year history.             

The international support operation

To assist Israel in containing and eventually extinguishing the fire, 25 countries plus the Palestinian Authority provided practical support, very quickly. Here is a list:
-   Azerbaijan - 2 helicopters
-   Bulgaria - 1 plane and 92 firefighters
-   Croatia - 1 plane, 8 firefighters and fire repression materials
-   Cyprus - 1 plane and 1 helicopter
-   Egypt - fire repression materials
-   France - 5 planes and fire repression materials
-   Germany - 1 plane, 7 experts in firefighting and fire repression materials
-   Greece - 7 planes, 34 firefighters and fire repression materials
-   Holland - 5 experts in firefighting
-   Italy - 1 plane and fire repression materials
-   Jordan - 3 truckloads of firefighting equipment and materials
-   Russia - 3 planes and 22 experts in firefighting
-   Spain - 5 planes
-   Switzerland - 1 plane, 3 helicopters and a team of 14
-   Turkey - 2 planes
-   UK - two helicopters
-   US - 5 planes, 11 experts in firefighting and fire repression materials
-   The Palestinian Authority - 21 firefighters and 3 fire engines

The following countries offered assistance but it was not required:

  1. Australia
  2. Austria
  3. Canada
  4. Czech Republic
  5. Denmark
  6. Rumania
  7. Ukraine

Source: Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs communique, 5 December 2010

The values underlying international cooperation

The international response to the fire highlighted the importance of international cooperation with Israel, and the values underlying that cooperation. 

We’ve set out below some comments from Palestinian, Swiss, Greek and Bulgarian firefighters, and from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres and Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon.        

Palestinian fire-fighter – “our job transcends borders….”

One Palestinian fire-fighter said: (quoted by Israel's Ambassador to the US Michael Oren in the Los Angeles Times, 7 December 2010):

"A firefighter's job transcends borders. Our job is to save human life regardless of religion, nationality and politics...."

Swiss firefighter – “I’ve never had such a welcome….”

A member of the Swiss assistance team, Andreas Schiess, attended a ceremony of gratitude held in Israel for the foreign fire-fighters, and he said (as quoted in the Jerusalem Post, 13 December 2010):  

“I have been to many countries to render assistance, but never did we have a welcome like the one we received in Israel…..”

Greek firefighter – “you can count on us….”

Brigadier General Papageorgiou Vasilios is the leader of the Greek Fire Corps.  It was reported in the Jerusalem Post on 13 December 2010 that:

“Vasilios expressed sorrow at the tragic loss of life and conveyed sympathy to the families of the dead, but declared at the same time that there was deep satisfaction in being able to help Israeli colleagues to contain the fire.  Real friends speak with their feet, he said: “We are your friends. If the need ever arises again, you can count on us…”

Bulgarian leader – “This is a humanitarian mission…”

Deputy Foreign Minister Dimiter Tzanchev said (as reported in the Jerusalem Post on 13 December 2010):
“Bulgaria didn’t bring the planes and helicopters that other countries sent, but we did send 92 people, all of them professionals with a great deal of experience in dealing with fires like this.  Bulgaria is five times the size of Israel, and is full of forests and mountains…. This is not a political mission.  It’s a humanitarian one. There is a country in need, and we are here to help them….”

Prime Minister Netanyahu – “a regional network is forming which will benefit all peoples….”

Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu stated in a press conference on 4 December 2010 (taken from Israeli Foreign Ministry Press Release of that date):

“I have spoken with approximately 30 heads of state and government, presidents and prime ministers, in the past three days.  I must tell you that their mobilization, the warmth of their remarks, their willingness, the desire to help immediately, sometimes ever before we managed to request it, must warm the hearts of all Israelis.  There is very great solidarity here and there is very great cooperation, of course in keeping with their abilities.  People are bringing what they have…..  

…. We have also witnessed displays of admiration and assistance from Egypt, from Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, from Jordanian King Abdullah, and from Palestinian Authority Chairman Abu Mazen, who volunteered to send three firefighters.  I think these things are very important. I had a very good and warm talk with him.  I expressed appreciation both for this step and for his solidarity in conveying his condolences, as others have also done, and I told him that we are in the same neighbourhood.  The fire is once here and once there.  We are, in effect, creating a regional network, after we purchase the fire-fighting planes, the planes will join a regional network that I believe we can establish here for the benefit of all peoples….”
Israeli President Shimon Peres – “we need to show younger generations that we can change….”

Israel’s President Shimon Peres spoke to a gathering of the foreign fire-fighters, and here is an extract (reported on on 13 December 2010):
“The event puts a new face on our relations with other nations. I now feel that humanity is better than it has been, and you are the ones who represent that hope.  Perhaps we can also work through our political difficulties and bring peace to the mothers and children of the region, and show the young generation we can change….”

And further on in his remarks he stated that “all those who fought the blaze were fighting to make the world a more humane place”, and he was convinced that “if hostilities could be put aside in the face of human need, this could bring about change and lead to peace….”

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Daniel Ayalon - “We express our humblest and utmost gratitude….”

Daniel Ayalon spoke at the same gathering, and said (same source):

“Those who are here and other firefighters that have already returned are already acknowledged as heroes in your own countries, and now you are heroes in our homes as well.  We will forever cherish and remember your courage and bravery….”

On 4 December Ayalon had written in the Jerusalem Post:

“The Foreign Ministry constantly receives praise for this country’s absolute willingness to open its hearts to the people of the world regardless of race, religion or ethnicity.  While Israel’s humanitarian work in Haiti made the international headlines, there are scores of other unreported disaster zones to which Israel provides badly needed support….

…. We express our humblest and utmost gratitude to the governments and their people who provided assistance, and who surely teach us that Israel is a welcome and appreciated member of the family of nations….”