Illuminating the possibilities

Hanukkah, which we celebrate this week, recalls the miracle of lights that burned for eight days. Israel, meanwhile, struggled to extinguish a forest fire raging out of control. Fanned by Santa Ana-type winds, the blaze engulfed the Carmel region of the Lower Galilee, claiming 42 lives, destroying communities, and consuming about 10,000 acres and more than 4 million trees. A country that has prevailed through successive wars and terrorist attacks, Israel had never before confronted such a devastating natural disaster. And we could not overcome it alone.

Admitting that was not easy for us. A self-reliant people who are renowned as first responders to disasters abroad — in earthquake-stricken Haiti and Turkey, for example, or in a Congolese village decimated by fire — we are accustomed to offering rather than requesting aid. And yet, as the Carmel fire spread, forcing 17,000 people from their homes, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not stand on pride. “We live in a global world,” he explained. “We give and receive help, and it’s not shameful to ask.”

Among the first to answer this call was President Obama. “This is what friends do for each other,” he announced at the White House Hanukkah party last Thursday, and personally assured me that the administration would act immediately to “assist Israel in its hour of need.” Consequently, the National Security Council headed an interagency task force that worked around the clock to locate and deliver fire retardant and the aircraft to disperse it. Teams of firefighters from across the United States were swiftly dispatched. On arrival in Afghanistan the next day, the president immediately checked on the operation’s progress and personally updated the prime minister.


Our European and Mediterranean allies also mobilized their resources. Within 24 hours, Israelis could see Greek, Russian, British and Cypriot helicopters, together with French and Spanish planes, rushing to fight the inferno, while Israeli firefighters were joined by their counterparts from Croatia, Bulgaria and Azerbaijan.

Far more unexpected were the contributions from governments that are often critical of us.

Turkey, despite the strains in our relationship since the Gaza flotilla incident this year, sent two firefighting helicopters with an 11-man team, and fire engines and crews arrived from neighboring Arab countries. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, though still declining to return to peace talks, offered to help without hesitation and conveyed their condolences to the people of Israel. “A firefighter’s job transcends borders,” a Palestinian firefighter told an Israeli newspaper. “Our job is to save human life regardless of religion, nationality and politics.”

Predictably, radicals such as Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh quickly ascribed the fire to “punishment from Allah.” Four years after they were pummeled by rockets, Israeli neighborhoods are still targeted by 50,000 Hezbollah missiles, any one of which could ignite an inferno.

But this hatred should not overshadow the outpouring of goodwill and common humanity aroused by the fire. For Israelis, who sometimes feel isolated in the world and misunderstood, the international response to the conflagration gave us the rare opportunity to feel part of a caring global community. And for a Middle East plagued by constant tensions and upheaval, extinguishing the fire illuminated the possibilities of peace.

The victims of the fire — Jews, Arabs and Druze, along with the nation’s highest-ranking female police officer, Ahuva Tomer, and Elad Riban, a 16-year-old volunteer — represented a cross-section of Israeli society. They were trying to rescue prison inmates, including convicted terrorists, caught in the blaze’s path. Similarly, Israelis from all religious and ethnic backgrounds joined in combating the flames. Consequently, a fire that may have raged for weeks was contained in a matter of days.

Israel is investigating the causes and examining ways to prevent future disasters. We know that our adversaries in the Middle East still strive to cause us harm by unnatural means. Yet among the lessons of this tragedy is that friendship can blossom even in the most scorching conditions. The miracle of this Hanukkah is not that a fire lasted so long but rather that it was extinguished by enlightened cooperation.

Michael B. Oren is Israel’s ambassador to the United States.