The Carmel fires of December 2010 were not the result of just another failure or the hand of fate. They arose from the policies of the government of Israel, which pays close attention to the stock exchange while ignoring the consequences of its own neoliberalism: wars, “natural” disasters, poverty and unemployment.
The privatization of the security and life-saving services is not new. For many years the Finance Ministry has been putting its hopes in the privatization of the police and prison services. Meanwhile it neglects those services that have not been privatized, and the chaos in the firefighting services reflects this – units spread out across the country lacking any coordination between them. In Israel there is one firefighter for each 7000 citizens (compared to the international standard of one for each 1000 citizens), no firefighting aircraft and fire-engines over 20 years old.
As the flames spread over the Carmel range, it was clear that the period of grace for the government had come to an end. This same government behaves as if it is on another planet – it continues to apply the privatization policies, aims to reduce regulation of the banking sector, and shuts itself off from all criticism coming from the outside world as well as any arrangement with the Palestinians. US President Barack Obama “doesn’t understand.” The Europeans are “anti-Semitic.” The Palestinians “just take without giving.” And the workers? They pay the price. There is indeed a price to these neo-liberal policies: in the case of the Carmel fires, 42 dead, 5000 hectares of charred woodland and 17,000 evacuees.
A year ago, the heads of the firefighting services asked the government to allocate NIS 540 million ($149 million) for the purpose of saving the services. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the time he was unable to decide without a public-opinion survey. Netanyahu asked that the survey investigate the public’s attitude to the firefighting services in general, and in particular its opinion about withdrawing the firefighters’ freedom to unionize and right to strike.
In the face of suggested reforms, which would turn the services into a nationwide coordinated system with a higher budget, Netanyahu demanded that they be seen as part of the security sector and be prevented from setting up workers’ committees. This demand is part of Netanyahu’s attack on organized labor. Many firefighters’ unions can be found throughout the world, and firefighters are well aware of their right to strike when their livelihood is threatened. In Israel, the last strike addressed the problem of budget for updating the services; it was not a demand for higher wages for the firefighters themselves. Moreover, during the second Lebanon war, when the firefighters’ pay had been withheld for a number of months, they nonetheless called off their industrial action and went out to extinguish fires.
We can assume that the government will use philanthropic band-aids to cover the damages on Mount Carmel, including a special grant for residents who fled their homes, assistance in rebuilding, reliance on non-profit associations and perhaps even soup kitchens, as it is wont to do whenever its policies cause damage to weaker populations. But when the Israeli economic vision follows the American dream – a thin budget, small deficit, decreasing taxation of capital – the result is the robbery and exploitation of more and more people, with nobody to protect them against the flames. There is a budget for new tanks and planes, there is a budget for the most advanced military technologies, there is a budget for settlement and construction in the Occupied Territories – but there is precious little ability to fight fires.
Netanyahu needs to give a reckoning not just to Israeli citizens but to people around the world. On Thursday, immediately after the fires broke out, the prime minister asked many countries to throw him a lifeline. His pleas were heard, and planes arrived from Greece, Britain, Cyprus, France and even Turkey, while firefighters arrived from Bulgaria, fire-engines from the Palestinian Authority, and various other forms of assistance from other states. It is likely the fires would have destroyed even more if Israel had not received the assistance of the giant Russian Ilyushin aircraft and the “supertanker” hired from an American firm. Where was the European anti-Semitism that generally stars in Israel’s headlines? Where is Obama’s hostility, which we have learned to accept as axiomatic? Where are the Turkish terrorists? Or Palestinian terrorists? The fire destroyed the chronic mantra that “The whole world is against us.” States around the globe, who are sick of the occupation and Israel’s obstinacy, nonetheless came to its rescue as the fires raged. And now – will the government of Israel do something in return? It seems not.
The US announced that negotiations for an extended moratorium on construction in the settlements had failed, showing that Netanyahu continues to trample on any hope of dialogue with the Palestinians. If he doesn’t seize the extra credit he has just been granted by the international community, if he doesn’t pick up the phone to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, send a reconciliatory message to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan and Syrian President Bashar Assad, if he doesn’t show the world he is ready to get down from his tree for the sake of peace – the next fire will be too much to handle, no matter how many shiny new planes we get from America.
Translated from the Hebrew by Yonatan Preminger