By Franziska Knupper/JNS.org
Meir Barzilay was one of the lucky residents of Haifa during Israel’s recent wave of fires.
"I live in a row of six houses," says the homeowner living on Shahar street. "Somehow, the fire magically jumped from house number two directly to number four, sparing us."
Barzilay points to the grey and black hillsides, the burnt trees, the plastic foil that protects his neighbor's house from rain and wind. The roof is gone. It was made out of wood and the fire swept it all away. The wind still carries the smell of ashes. Barzilay's house lies in the district of Romema, the neighborhood of Haifa hit hardest by the fires that had invaded central and northern Israel starting Nov. 22. For eight days, firefighters across Israel battled 90 fires in 1,773 locations, with the largest blazes occurring in Haifa. Eight-hundred of the city's apartments have been rendered uninhabitable, leaving 1,700 people homeless. The damage was so severe that in about 100 cases, demolition of entire buildings will be necessary in Haifa.
"The municipality is doing a great job to help us, though. We are grateful for the rapid support,” Barzilay says, giving Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav a pat on the shoulder. Yahav nods in agreement, adding, "I am very impressed by the efficient rescue and assistance the city was providing. The fire department and military sent a positive message to the citizens, a message of security."
The damage in Haifa’s public areas amounts to half a billion shekels (about $130 million), including damage to the city’s infrastructure and sewage systems. Haifa’s full rehabilitation will take up to 30 years, officials say. Damages to private property have yet to be fully assessed.
"For insurance purposes, the fires have been officially declared as terrorist acts," Yahav explains. In cases of terror, the Israeli government provides victims with 90-percent compensation for the exterior of their buildings and 10 percent for the interior. The rest of the damages come under the purview of private insurance companies, and "in the case of people lacking insurance, the government will cover all expenses," says Yahav.
Whether or not the wildfires were caused by nationalistically motivated Arab arsonists ultimately makes no difference to Yahav. "There is no way to prove if any of this was intentional or not. And I honestly do not care," says the mayor, who calls Haifa the only "sane" city in Israel and "a place in which such events will not destabilize the atmosphere of mutual Jewish and Arabic existence."
All of the area’s Arab municipalities and institutions immediately offered their help to Haifa during the wave of fires, says Imam Rashad Abu al-Hija of Haifa’s Al Jarina Great Mosque. “We are offering our mosque as a place of refuge and donated wood to rebuild a synagogue that was destroyed in one of the fires,” he says. The imam adds that he is saddened by how the Arab population is reflexively blamed the for the fires despite Arabs’ involvement in the rescue and rehabilitation process. The Israel Police is currently holding 30 individuals on suspicion of arson or incitement. “If, however, one of them will be found guilty, then they should be punished to the full extent of the law,” the imam says.
Ariel Waterman, the city engineer of Haifa, is certain some of the fires were intentional. "They broke out almost simultaneously at distinct locations within the region. And the first one started at the fire department itself, rendering immediate rescue and assistance all the more difficult," he says, speaking against the backdrop of the scorched hills of Ramat Eshkol.
In Haifa alone, the blazes consumed 700 acres of vegetation. Surprisingly, no wild animals have been found dead. “They must have escaped in time,” says Waterman. Despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration that Israel will rebuild homes and rehabilitate forests “10-times-fold,” full rehabilitation will be a long-term process because the removal of burnt material alone can take up to four years, Waterman argues. One of the lessons learned from this natural catastrophe is to never again plant pine trees in between houses and in residential areas.
"The pine cones were so dry and incredibly flammable that they exploded once they caught fire, and thus carried it further and further," Waterman says. This reality disappoints the city engineer, who describes the iconic charm of Haifa in which city and nature organically fuse, with forest penetrating residential areas.
Nevertheless, the city has started to celebrate life again. During a food festival, Jewish and Arab chefs from all over the country presented Levant cuisine, including some dishes that were near extinction but are being restored, as well as foods from Syria and Lebanon that most Israelis have never previously tasted. More festivities are around the corner, such as Haifa’s so-called “Holiday of Holidays,” which is celebrated annually over the course of three December weekends amid Hanukkah and Christmas. With concerts, performances and street fairs, this mega-event celebrates the unity of the three monotheistic religions and will contribute a glimpse of hope to the recovering city.
“No matter what,” says Mayor Yahav, “never postpone a festival.”