Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Not just for the sake of the trees

In the 111 years since its founding in 1901, how many trees has the Jewish National Fund planted in Israel?
Good question, wouldn't you agree?
Well I’ll let you ponder that one while I tell a tale or two of trees.

Once upon a time, I was a site engineer, or a resident engineer. This means I was the one responsible for overseeing a large construction project, I was the client’s eyes and ears on site.

Our project was the construction of a sewage tunnel, and the laying of over 10 kilometers of sewage pipe both through the tunnel and then beyond, across a conservation area on the southern outskirts of Jerusalem, and even beneath a river (which was either dried up for part of the year, or flowing with actual sewage the rest of the time).

One of the first excursions we took to this area, before any digging, drilling, pipe laying had begun, consisted of almost a dozen of us: managers (well it was a Jewish group, you see), engineers, “greens” from the JNF and Ministry of the Environment, landscape architects. We walked the length of the proposed route of the pipe, and noted in meticulous detail, where the construction site would be and how far it could encroach on the pastoral environment. In particular we analysed each and every tree that stood in the way of our construction, and decided upon its fate: If it could be left, unharmed, and the construction would just carry on around it; or if should be removed, temporarily, and then brought back after the whole job was finished; if it should be removed to somewhere else nearby and then left there; or, with no other choice, the tree would have to go (but be replaced later with something green and flowery maybe).

It was my first year of living in Israel and I was impressed by the attention given to, and the care meted out to, trees. Here we were, several senior, busy people, investing time and a great deal of care and effort, all for the sake of some trees. Being one of the most reliable people in the team at the time (or maybe, I was the only one with a pen), it fell on me to take the notes, writing such thrilling prose, such as: “Large conifer, south of rubble wall, at point 50, to be removed temporarily”. Of course, this was in fluent Hebrew, though at the time I probably didn’t know the words for rubble, or conifer, or removed. So I probably wrote it in Heblish, a common language spoken by many in these parts.

Still thinking of the number of trees the JNF planted in 111 years?

OK, enough of the suspense. The JNF planted over 240 million trees, making Israel one of only two countries worldwide that entered the 21st century with a net gain in the number of trees.

Which is why the Carmel Forest fire was all the more tragic. The fire that enveloped the Mount Carmel Forest outside of Haifa raged for four days in December 2010, causing more than 17,000 locals to be evacuated, burning over 12,000 acres, destroying an estimated 1.5 million trees and tragically killing 44 people (most of them Prison Service cadets on a bus, on their way to help evacuate the Damun Prison which had been engulfed in the fire. It appeared that the bus was caught in a fireball when a blazing tree fell across the road, and all but 3 died attempting to escape the burning vehicle).

Last week, the outgoing State Comptroller issued his report into the forest fire, and heaped scathing criticism on many, including the police, the Israel Prison Service, the Israeli Fire and Rescue Service and, most vociferously, the interior minister, Eli Yishai, and finance minister, Yuval Steinitz.

The tragedy highlighted possibly two failures that permeate the public sector in Israel: incompetence (poor structural organization, as the Comptroller would say) and a lack of accountability. I think he even had to invent a Hebrew word (achrayutiut אחריותיות) for “accountability” as the concept simply doesn’t exist here.

Photo: Shimon Edri /

Let’s say one cabinet minister, let's call him Eli, says the Fire Service needs new equipment. Another cabinet minister, the one with the key to the safe, let’s call him Yuval, says “No you can’t have it, because the Fire Service is hopeless, poorly structured, couldn’t organize a party in bar,” hoping that these encouraging words will inspire structural reforms.
Eli, however, goes and sulks in the corner, and refuses to use funds from elsewhere in his office for the Fire Service (despite Israel only possessing 20 tons of fire suppressant material - some 90% less than the emergency minimum), for as long as Yuval refuses to cough up the extra money. Each stands his ground.

This is called politics.
But at the end of the day, 1.5 million trees were destroyed. And 44 people were killed.

Whilst Israelis are known to be very forward, and not to mince their words, our State Comptroller, a diplomat among politicians, and indeed a former judge, did not call for anyone’s resignation. But he did consider the infighting between the two cabinet ministers as instrumental, and concluded that their responsibility was such that “it would be fitting to point it out in concrete and practical terms.”

If you do get a chance to read any one of the 500 pages of the Comptroller’s report, that’ll be more than either Steinitz or Yishai has done.

Was anything destroyed? Yes.
Was anyone killed? Yes.
Did anyone resign?

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