Let’s Look a Little Deeper at Why Israel’s Forests are Burning

In Israel recently, why did 1,700 fires consume more than 32,000 acres—an area greater than twice the size of Manhattan?  As the JTA reported, the fires forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes, and destroyed hundreds of buildings. They burned an area 30 percent greater than consumed by the Carmel fire in 2010, which killed 42 people. Millions of trees were likely burned in both fires, which were Israel’s largest in modern history.

So why are good parts of Israel’s prized forests going up in smoke? Media attention focused on Palestinian arsonists, who lit the matches that started many of the fires. I want to focus on two other factors, that have received a lot less attention.

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First, Israeli firefighting capacity. As Michelle Chabin reported in Times of Israel following the Carmel fire, 10 different Israeli government committees have said that the number of Israeli firefighters and amount of equipment is terribly inadequate. Over 10 countries sent firefighting planes, helicopters, and crews to Israel to help put out the fires, as they did with the Carmel fire.The generosity of Azerbaijan, Jordan, and Switzerland, among other countries, is appreciated, yet raises the question: why does Israel rely on outside support each time there is a major fire?

Today, Israel has 14 firefighting planes, up from eight planes in 2014 and almost none in 2010, according to a recent report. In contrast, the Israeli Air Force has 684 military aircraft, and when it has to respond to a crisis, it does not rely on the air support of other countries.  (Amazon.com has a fleet of 767 cargo jets, in addition to relying on FedEx and DHL, American Airlines has 1,800 planes, and the US military has thousands.) Why does Israel have only 14 firefighting aircraft? Why does it have about 50 times as more military aircraft than firefighting ones?

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Answers to these questions center on issues of priorities. Yes, Israel needs a robust air force for national defense. But as environmental degradation in Israel and globally intensifies, the threat we are posing to our common home and to nature will eclipse the threat posed by other peoples. The government and the public have yet to wake up to the urgency of firefighting. The firefighting budget is in the hands of the Interior Ministry, which consistently underprioritizes firefighting. There is no green party in the Knesset (Parliament), and environmental interests are underrepresented.

A second key yet overlooked cause of the fires is climate change. More intense fires is one of the ways that climate change is impacting the Middle East, as numerous Israeli and international scientific studies make clear. The fires go hand in hand with more intense droughts. In both December 2010 and late November 2015, massive fires occurred after Israel lacked significant rains in eight months. While it is normal for rain not to fall between April and October, in both of these years rain barely fell in October and November, drying out the forests. In addition, 2016 was the hottest year on record, and the summer months were extremely hot. Unless we acknowledge global warming and climate change as a key driver of these fires, we are not going to prevent future, more destructive fires.

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The firest in Israel are part of a global trend due to climate change. Fires recently burned in the Andes of Peru, destroying tens of thousands of acres of land and threatening to extinct species such as the spectacled bear. In Russia and Canada, over the past several years hundred of millions of acres of boreal forests have burned. In 2015, Alaska, home to the US’s largest boreal forest, saw its second-largest fire season on record when 768 different fires burned more than five million acres. Climate change and El Nino have made regions drier and more vulnerable than ever before- and it is proving to be extraordinarily dangerous.

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To curb climate change, we will need to stop burning fossil fuels, soon. The current Israeli government supports the large-scale extraction and sale of Israel’s fossil fuel resources, primarily gas off of the coast of Haifa. Israel needs to take the lead in developing renewable energy, and foregoing known fossil fuel reserves by keeping them in the ground in the interests of humanity and all species.

As the 21st century began, Israel was unique in comparison to most countries in that it had more trees than were present a century before. This is largely due to reforestation efforts, which were begun in the early 1900s by the Jewish National Fund and took hold especially mid-way through the century and forward. However, as the 21st century continues, that impressive statistic has been reversed, and Israel’s forests are on the decline.

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The Bible and Jewish law teach that we must not destroy trees, directly or indirectly. Deuteronomy 20:19 states that “the human being is a tree of the field.” The rabbis explain this verse to be teaching us that our well-being is dependent on the health of our forests and trees and therefore we need to protect them. The life of people depends on trees—for oxygen, fruit, nuts, soil retention, climatic balance and more. Humanity’s fate is intrinsically bound to that of trees.

May the recent fires in Israel and globally wake us up to the urgency of our collective situation. Let us not live in a fool’s paradise, thinking that everything is alright when it is not. The large-scale burning of forests in this land and on this planet are messaging that something deep is out of balance– the lifestyle of billions of human beings. Let us wake up while we can still change course, before it is too late.

About the Author
Rabbi Yonatan Neril founded and directs the Interfaith Center for Sustainable Development. He completed an M.A. and B.A. from Stanford University with a focus on global environmental issues, and received rabbinical ordination in Israel. He is the lead author and general editor of two publications on Jewish environmental ethics, speaks on faith and ecology, and was a Dorot and PresenTense Fellow. He lives with his wife, Shana, and two children in Jerusalem.
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