JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Formidable in war, Israel was defenseless on Friday in the face of a wildfire, casting around desperately for help from neighbors with fire-fighting planes.
Israel was caught flat-footed by the forest blaze now raging for a second day through the tinder-dry Carmel hills above the Mediterranean port of Haifa, because it has no water-bombers.
The death of 41 people in the flames on Thursday shocked the country. Some 15,000 Israelis had to be evacuated from their homes as the flames swept down on them unchecked. The inadequacy of the response has been openly admitted.
“Israel has never prepared itself in any form for such a need,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. “It was never taken into account.”
He told reporters: “We have to stop the fire. It can only be done with the aircraft, we don’t have any other means...We need to bring in more planes.”
Israel’s call for help had been answered by Greece, Cyprus, Britain, Turkey, Bulgaria, Russia, Egypt, Azerbaijan, Spain, Croatia, France and Jordan, Netanyahu said.
Israel could buy three state-of-the-art Bombardier Superscooper firefighting planes for the price of just one of the F-35 stealth fighters it has on order.
The highly specialized amphibious aircraft, costing $28.5 million each, can scoop and drop six tones of water up to 10 times per hour on a fire that is near a big body of water. The Israeli blaze is only a few km (miles) from the sea.
But Israel does not have any. Instead it has to rely on Mediterranean neighbors who also face a constant wildfire risk and were prudent enough to buy the water-bomber aircraft. Greece has 21 of them, Croatia 6.
Israel instead has chosen to “improvise,” critics said. On Thursday night, airforce mobile water cannon designed to operate on flat tarmac could be seen trundling warily into position on steep earthen slopes, their range still quite inadequate.
By contrast, Israel has 360 F-16 fighters, far more than most countries outside the United States that have bought the world’s best-selling attack plane, not to mention many F-15s and the whole panoply of costly, advanced military aviation.
Commentators said the national Fire and Rescue Service, with some 1,400 firefighters, was simply not prepared for the fire.
“Firefighters know that their organization has been systematically neglected by the government for decades,” wrote Yaakov Lappin in the Jerusalem Post.
Highlighting the need for adequate fire defenses, Israeli army planners say the densely populated Tel Aviv metropolitan area could be the target of a missile blitz in a future war, while northern towns could be set ablaze in a rain of short-range rockets from Hezbollah in Lebanon.
A drill held in May to simulate some worst case scenarios was described by fire officials as “largely meaningless, because the organization was underfunded, understaffed and lacking the equipment needed...,” the newspaper said.
Shocked by the devastation, Netanyahu said on Friday: “During the next week we will announce a plan to buy planes that will be presented to the cabinet for approval and execution.”
Additional reporting by Ori Lewis, Editing by Crispian Balmer and Mark Trevelyan