Image: A firefighting aircraft flies over a forest fire on Mount Carmel near Haifa
Str  /  Reuters
A firefighting aircraft flies over a forest fire on Mount Carmel near the northern city of Haifa on Friday.
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updated 12/3/2010 6:27:19 PM ET 2010-12-03T23:27:19

Responding to an unprecedented Israeli distress call, aircraft from Turkey, Greece, Cyprus and Britain dumped sea water and flame retardant Friday on a woodland inferno that has killed dozens, displaced thousands and ravaged one of the Holy Land's most prized forests.

As the country mourned the dead, Israelis — long known for their high-tech society and vaunted rescue missions abroad — were stunned at their firefighters' helplessness in quelling the blaze, the worst forest fire in the nation's history.

Still, for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — embattled over the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace effort — it was also a chance to show that Israel was perhaps not so isolated after all. Even the Palestinian Authority pitched in with firefighting units.

Suspicions of arson persisted on day two of the blaze as it rampaged through the Carmel Forest near Haifa, Israel's third-largest city. Police said small brush fires that broke out Friday appeared to have been deliberately set, though police chief David Cohen said it was possible the main fire erupted because of carelessness.

Anguished families began burying the 41 dead — most of them prison guards who perished Thursday when the blaze engulfed a bus that was transporting them to evacuate a prison. Fewer than half had been identified by late Friday because bodies had been burned beyond recognition.

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The human tragedy was compounded by the loss of precious woodland in a country where only 7 percent of the land is forested. Tree-planting has an almost mystical quality here: For decades, Jews the world over have dropped coins into blue-and-white boxes of the Jewish National Fund, which has planted 240 million trees in the Carmel Forest and elsewhere across Israel since its founding in 1901.

Though the scorched woodland covered an area of only about eight square miles — or some 1 percent of Israel's forest land — the fire was felt as a deep national loss.

Outside Haifa, wind-driven flames towering nearly 100 feet turned the sky crimson as they spread across hilly pine forest toward the Mediterranean Sea. Flying back and forth, helicopters and planes scooped up sea water and dumped it on the blaze. Turkish planes scattered powdery white flame retardant over the smoky hills, dotted with charred banana trees and cypress trees stripped of their leaves.

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The eruption of the blaze Thursday overwhelmed Israel's small firefighting force and prompted an unprecedented call for international help from a country better known for helping in other countries' disaster zones.

Yoram Levy, a spokesman for Israel's fire and rescue service, said firefighters battling strong winds were having trouble accessing the mountains and valleys.

"We don't have big aircraft that can carry a large amount of water," Levy said. "It is not enough for a large-scale fire."

Some 100 firefighters from Bulgaria arrived as well as fire extinguishing planes and crews from Greece, Britain and Cyprus, Israeli officials said. Additional planes were offered by other EU nations and Russia. The U.S. was sending a team of firefighting experts as well as tons of fire retardant and foam, and pledged to help with additional aircraft.

President Barack Obama discussed the fire and expressed his condolences for the loss of life in a telephone call to Netanyahu from Air Force One after it departed from Afghanistan. Obama had made an unannounced holiday visit to U.S. troops there.

Israel's Mideast neighbors, Jordan and Egypt, also sent firefighters and equipment.

Netanyahu thanked the many states that stepped in to help Israel, saying the "one bright spot" in the calamity was "the solidarity of the peoples of the world with the people of Israel."

The message had special resonance in a country where people perceive increased hostility from a world eager to see creation of a Palestinian state.

"The international response to our call was exceptional," Netanyahu said during a visit to the north. "It demonstrates that there is affection for Israel and identification with it from all corners of the Earth."

The help that drew the most attention came from Turkey, once a close ally but now a vocal critic — most recently because of a deadly Israeli raid in May on a flotilla bound for Gaza, the Palestinian territory run by Hamas militants. Eight Turks and a Turkish-American were killed.

For the first time since the raid, Netanyahu called Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan to thank him for Turkey's help. "I am certain it will be an opening toward improving relations between our two countries," his office quoted him as saying.

But Erdogan was quick to reply that the help did not mean ties would return to normal and that his country still expected an apology and compensation for the victims. "If these matters are settled this could start a positive process for the future," he said.

Turkey was not alone in setting aside tensions to help out. The Palestinian Authority, which recently cut off U.S.-sponsored peace talks with the Netanyahu government, also dispatched firefighters and trucks.

By early evening, the fire still raged out of control and some 17,000 people had been evacuated from 14 communities and facilities, said Cohen, the police chief. Most were from outside Haifa, a city of 265,000.

The talk of arson provoked new tensions with Israel's Arab minority — tensions heightened after police briefly arrested two Israeli Druse men on suspicion they were planning to set a new fire on Friday.

The men were quickly cleared and released, and a Druse official, Carmel Nasser a-Din, accused authorities of "irresponsibly and very maliciously" making allegations in their haste to find a scapegoat.

Israel's inability to contain the blaze itself created an uproar in a country that prides itself on its ability to improvise and is known for sending rescue teams and medical personnel to help in disaster relief efforts across the globe.

With the country's resources focused primarily on its military and police forces, firefighters have been undermanned and underfunded for years.

Israel, a country of 7.6 million, has only 1,400 firefighters — or 16 for every 100,000 residents. Although a direct comparison is impossible because Israel is so sparsely forested, that number compares unfavorably to other developed nations, such as the U.S., Japan and Greece, which have between five and seven times as many firefighters per capita.

Commentators were quick to draw broader conclusions.

Aluf Benn, a columnist for the Haaretz daily, said Israel's inability to control the flames proved it was not ready for a massive attack by Iran.

Maariv columnist Ben Caspit noted that Israel, a country that carries out daring military operations and is a high-tech leader, is also a nation "whose fire trucks date back to the previous century, and a country that therefore finds itself caught, standing before the flames, with its pants down."

_____

Teibel reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press Writer Suzan Fraser contributed from Ankara, Turkey.

© 2013 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Video: Anger rising in Israel over wildfires

Photos: Devastating forest fire in Israel

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  1. An Israeli police officer comforts her colleague during the funeral of Haifa police chief Ahuva Tomer, in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, on Monday, Dec. 6. Tomer, Israel's top policewoman, clung to life for four days after her patrol car was trapped in a burning forest, died Monday of her wounds. (Tara Todras-Whitehill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Remains of buildings stand after a massive wildfire in northern Israel on Tuesday, Dec. 7. The fire broke out Thursday and burned a 20-square-mile area in the Carmel forest, a popular nature spot on Haifa's outskirts. The blaze was brought under control late Sunday and damages overall have been estimated in the hundreds of millions of dollars. Although the wildfire was small by international standards, it was considered a calamity in Israel, where only 7 percent of the land is wooded. (Sebastian Scheiner / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. US Evergreen 747 supertanker sprays a burning area in Ein Hod in the Carmel Forest in the outskirts of Haifa on Dec. 5, as dozens of firefighting planes from around the world battled the blaze. (Jack Guez / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. An Israeli firefighter attempts to extinguish a blaze in the youth village (boarding school) of Yemin Orde, near the northern city of Haifa, Israel, Dec. 5. (Tara Todras-whitehill / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. A man inspects the remains of a burnt house in the village of Ein Hod, outside Haifa, Israel, on Dec. 5. (Abir Sultan / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Israeli police officers mourn during the funeral of their comrade Yitzhak Melina in Haifa Dec. 5. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government faced calls for consequences on Sunday over a huge four-day-old forest fire that has killed 41 people, including Melina, and been called the worst in Israel's history. (Ronen Zvulun / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. In this photo taken on Saturday, Dec. 4, smoke rises from a forest fire outside Haifa, Israel. (Dana Friedlander / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Locals watch a firefighting plane spray fire extinguishing material over the wildfire on Dec. 4, in Ein Hod, Israel. (Uriel Sinai / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Israeli residents look at the slope of the burning hill on the edge of Tirat Ha Carmel near the northern city of Haifa on Dec. 3, 2010. Around 40 people are believed to have been killed in the devastating forest fire burning. (Marco Longari / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Israeli firefighters put out the massive forest fire that broke out Thursday in the Tirat HaCarmel in the north of Israel, Dec. 3. Firefighting aircraft from four countries flew into Israel on Friday to help battle the fire close to the northern city of Haifa. (Baz Ratner / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. The burnt interior of a home in kibbutz Beit Oren, with the remains of furniture frames, destroyed in a wildfire in northern Israel is seen Friday, Dec. 3, 2010. Crews and equipment from around the world began arriving on Friday to help Israel's worst fire ever. The inferno, which also displaced thousands, is still raging through forests in northern Israel and on the outskirts of the country's third largest city, Haifa. (Dan Balilty / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Firefighters rest on the road at sunrise after participating overnight in the efforts to gain control over a massive wildfire, still raging near by, in Tirat Hacarmel, northern Israel, Dec. 3. (Tsafrir Abayov / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. The bodies of victims from a bus that was trapped in a forest fire that broke out in the Carmel Forest, are seen on the road near the northern Israeli city of Haifa, Dec. 2. (Avishag Shar-yashuv / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. An Israeli woman holds the keys of her house in her left hand while taking a photo of a raging forest fire in the Carmel mountain from a residential house in the hills above the coastal Israeli city of Haifa, Dec. 2. (Marco Longari / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. An Israeli firefighter plane drops fire retardant on the forest fire in the Carmel Forest, near Israel's northern city of Haifa, Dec. 2. (Roy El / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. A fire-fighting plane flies over a forest fire that broke out in the kibbutz of Beit Oren in the north of Israel, Dec. 2. (Nir Elias / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. A burnt-out bus is seen near kibbutz Beit Oren, Dec. 2. The bus burst into flames as it raced to an Israeli prison during a massive forest fire Thursday, killing dozens of prison guards participating in the rescue mission, officials said, in one of the deadliest accidents in the nation's history. (Yaron Kaminsky / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. Fire rages out of control in the Carmel Forest near Israel's northern city of Haifa, Dec. 2. (David Buimovitch / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. An Israeli firefighter runs from raging fire in Beit Oren, Carmel Forest, near Israel's northern city of Haifa, Dec. 2. (David Buimovitch / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A man stands beside his car as he looks at the forest fire in the Kibbutz of Beit Oren, northern Israel, Dec. 2. (Nir Elias / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Israeli paramedics evacuate an injured policewoman from the scene of a forest fire that broke out near kibbutz Beit Oren in the north of Israel Dec. 2. (Stringer/israel / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. Israeli firefighters work at the site where fire raged out of control in the Carmel Forest near Israel's northern city of Haifa, Dec. 2. (Jack Guez / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. A fire that broke out in the Carmel Forest near the northern Israeli city of Haifa is seen in this aerial view Dec. 2. (Stringer/israel / Reuters) Back to slideshow navigation
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