Relief efforts by the Canadian Jewish community and government were quickly up and running in the wake of Israel’s worst-ever forest fire last week.
The fire, which erupted Thursday and torched a huge swath of natural forest on Mount Carmel, was finally contained on Sunday after firefighters spent 77 hours battling the blaze with firefighting forces that included 35 waterbombing aircraft, 24 of them provided by foreign countries, including Canada.
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According to Israel’s Foreign Ministry, 42 people died in the fire, and nearly 50 square kilometres of forest and 250 homes were lost. The fire also caused over $2 billion NIS ($555 million Cdn) in damage, according to Israeli government estimates.
Many of the major Canadian Jewish community institutions, including the Jewish National Fund (JNF) of Canada, UJA Federation of Greater Toronto and Toronto-based humanitarian relief organization Ve’ahavta, quickly set up online donation pages and phone lines to help fight the fire and aid those affected in Israel.
As of The CJN’s deadline, the three organizations had raised nearly $200,000 nationally – $100,000 of which was contributed by a single donor for JNF to put toward the purchase of an additional fire truck for the organization’s fleet in Israel.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper extended Canada’s support and condolences to the victims of the fire after receiving a phone call from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu late last week.
A spokesperson for Foreign Affairs and International Trade Canada told The CJN that the department “is working rapidly to identify Canadian assistance that could be provided to Israel” as soon as possible.
Amir Gissin, Israeli consul general for Toronto and Western Canada, expressed his office’s appreciation to Canadians for their support in his country’s time of need.
“We have received word that the rehabilitation of the forests is starting to take place, although the recovery will take some time, with great effort and resources. We also appreciate the hard work of the Jewish organizations who are channelling efforts and support,” Gissin said.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry has recommended that Diaspora Jews who wish to make a donation to help should do so through their local JNF offices, as that organization will lead the restoration effort.
But Gissin noted that donations from all organizations “are welcomed.”
Joe Rabinovitch, executive vice-president of JNF Canada, told The CJN that all initial donations had been routed toward extinguishing the fire, with the money being used to purchase much-needed fire retardants and equipment for beleaguered JNF and Israeli firefighters on scene.
He added that 100 per cent of donations to JNF Canada were being rerouted to Israel.
“We’re not factoring in any overhead costs at all,” he said. “Over two million trees have been destroyed, from what I’ve heard.”
Once the fire is completely extinguished, JNF will begin assessing the damage, and trees will be strategically replanted shortly afterward, Rabinovitch said.
Of the 42 people killed by the fire, most were young Israeli prison guard cadets who became trapped on a bus when a burnt tree fell across the roadway while they were on their way to rescue inmates from nearby Damon jail during the onset of the fire.
In a statement last week, Canadian Liberal multiculturalism critic Rob Oliphant offered condolences to the cadets’ families.
“The courageous actions of these young Israelis, risking their own lives to save the inmates they were tasked to guard, are a tribute to their dedication and compassion, and indeed a tribute to the State of Israel itself,” Oliphant said.
Robert H. Serry, the UN special co-ordinator for the Middle East peace process, issued a statement last Friday expressing the UN’s sadness over the tragic events in Israel.
“This is a terrible tragedy. I convey my deepest sympathy to the bereaved families and have extended my condolences to the government of Israel. The United Nations is actively engaged in assisting to mobilize support from member states, some of which have already deployed assets to help those currently fighting the fires,” Serry said.
Early Sunday at an emergency cabinet meeting, Netanyahu ordered a halt to the arrival of new foreign firefighting aircraft after apparently accepting an Israeli Air Force recommendation that the existing firefighting force was providing the best response to the bushfire.
Netanyahu said the government will launch a program to rehabilitate the areas in the Carmel region that were badly damaged. “This is a special type of battle. Unlike ordinary fires, it requires measures different than those usually employed,” Netanyahu said.
The cabinet also announced it would provide NIS $140 million ($40 million Cdn) in emergency aid to those affected by the fire. “We must speed up the payment of the compensation. I don’t want delays or bureaucracy,” Netanyahu said.
Israeli police arrested two teenage brothers from the Druze village of Ussfiya on suspicion of negligence in starting the fire, and they were put under house arrest on Monday.
They are accused of lighting a bonfire near their home, which is said to have sparked the fire.
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In related news, in Israel on Monday, thousands of mourners attended the funeral of Haifa Police Chief Ahuva Tomer, the highest-ranking female officer in the Israeli police force, who died earlier in the day after succumbing to critical injuries sustained in the fire.
Tomer, who headed the Haifa Police Department, was critically injured on Thursday driving behind the bus full of prison guards that burned up in the flames.
Tomer was one of the best-known and highest-ranking officers in the northern region. She made history in 1997 when she was appointed police commander in Nahariya, and again in 2009, when she was appointed commander of the Haifa station, the largest in Israel.
With files from Frances Kraft and Ha’aretz.