Trees, it seems, can be ideological. But the ideology, as Grace Slick once sang, “doesn’t mean shit to a tree.” Or, as Gertrude Stein might have had it, a tree is a tree is a tree. In other words, even if it is a Zionist symbol, it is still holding down topsoil and protecting groundwater. And the fact that forests are burning in this arid part of the planet is not a good thing, no matter what side of an international border they are on, or what they symbolize. From the New York Times, Aug. 8 (emphasis added):
TEL AVIV, Aug. 7 — Hezbollah rocket fire that has kept Israelis in the north of the country in underground bomb shelters for weeks is also taking a toll on the environment, igniting hundreds of fires in the country’s few forests, in the Galilee region of northern Israel.
Officials estimated today that as much as 9,000 acres of land, including almost 3,000 acres of forest, have been damaged by fire in the close to four weeks of cross-border fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. The conflict has prompted an unprecedented barrage of daily rocket fire attacks into Israel.
“There has never been a situation like this before,” said Shimon Romach, 57, Israel’s national fire and rescue commissioner, during a break late last week from reviewing the situation with his staff at the fire station in the northern town of Nahariya, one of the stations being used as an operations center during the crisis. Aerial and topographical maps of the region line the walls of their operations room.
“Lately there are more Katyushas and so more land is being burned,” said Mr. Romach.
Many of the rockets, packed with tons of explosive material, have landed and detonated in forests, vineyards, orchards and open fields of the Galilee — which in more peaceful times has been celebrated for its green vistas and tranquillity.
Because Israel is a largely arid country, the Greening Israel incentive has been a major part of the Zionist ethos. Many of the forests that are now under fire were planted by in the 1950’s, during the early years of the Israeli state.
At least one major forest in northern Israel has lost up to 75 percent of its trees. Across the border in southern Lebanon, forest fires also rage, from Israeli bombs. In the dry heat of summer. the land in this region is especially vulnerable.
Mr. Romach has brought firefighters from other parts of the country to expand local forces. In normal times, there are three shifts of 75 firefighters a day in this region. These days, there are more than 180 on each shift.
He coordinates his operations with those of the Jewish National Fund. The fund, which predates the state of Israel and is supported by the government and private donations, is the official caretaker of the land, including the nation’s forests. It has its own force of about 100 firefighters.
Mr. Romach said that during the current crisis the firefighters are working long days without sufficient manpower or equipment. They are sent out to as many as 100 fires a day in forests and other open areas, as well as to blazes in residential and public buildings.
Although many of the firefighters are not equipped with flak jackets, they sometimes find themselves putting out fires even as Katyusha rockets fall nearby.
Small planes, usually used in the north for crop dusting, are now being employed to help put out the fires. Pilots release tons of a red-colored flame retardant to contain the blazes. The flames in the most serious fires have reached as high as 130 feet.
But Mr. Romach said he has run out of money from his regular budget to hire the planes. The Jewish National Fund has provided extra emergency funds to cover operations for now but it was not immediately clear when additional government funding would come through.
The fund has been raising money abroad to buy additional safety equipment and trucks to support the firefighters in this crisis.
Amir Levi, the 33-year-old chief of operations for the Western Galilee’s fire department, surveyed the damage from the sky on a recent day, flying in a single-engine plane. He pointed out a swath of blackened earth on Israel’s border with Lebanon — the aftermath of a blaze that ignited when a Hezbollah rocket plunged into a forest of pine trees.
“As firefighters we, too, are taking part in this war,” said Mr. Levi, who has not had a day off since the fighting — and the fires — began with a cross-border attack by Hezbollah on June 12. He sent his wife and two young daughters to a kibbutz in the southern part of the country for their protection. “We are among those fighting on the home front,” he said.
The firefighting teams include both local Jews and Arabs. “There is a type of coexistence under fire,” said Dr. Omri Bonneh, director of Israel’s northern region for the fund. “They work together, shoulder to shoulder. The volunteers from nearby that come out to help are also both Arabs and Jews. They bring us food and water and encourage the firefighters.”
Mr. Romach expressed a more skeptical view. He said that there is evidence that some of the fires have been caused by arson and said there are suspicions that some local Arab residents may be responsible, protesting Israel’s military action in Lebanon. No arrests have been made, however.
There is great damage to the north’s landscape, but it remains unclear just how severe the long-term environmental damage will be.
“The ecological system is used to living with fires,” said Raanan Boral, the head of the environmental protection division of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. “It is part of life for the system. Some trees get burned and so do some nests. Some animals don’t have the time to flee, but the system can rehabilitate itself. It takes time and it is not nice to look at but it is not an irreversible disaster.” In Lebanon the environment has been harder hit — most notably by an oil spill caused by Israeli air strikes that is devastating the country’s coastline.
Meanwhile, a group of volunteer firefighters from New York arrived last week to help reinforce their counterparts in Israel.
“We felt it was important we offer help in the north or help man depleted firefighting crews,” said Nathan Rothschild, 49, from Rockland County, New York, who is helping staff a Jerusalem firehouse, many of whose members have been called north. “We feel if we can make a difference we are happy to do that.”