Image: U.S. Evergreen 747 supertanker sprays over
Jack Guez  /  AFP - Getty Images
U.S. Evergreen 747 supertanker sprays over 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 battle the blaze, which has killed 41 people so far.
updated 12/5/2010 3:39:37 PM ET 2010-12-05T20:39:37

Israeli officials came under sharp criticism Sunday for their handling of the country's deadliest wildfire ever, prompting critics to ask whether the nation's leaders can cope with more serious challenges, like rocket attacks and a nuclear-armed Iran.

Israelis have been riveted to round-the-clock coverage of the blaze, which has claimed 41 lives and devastated one of the few forests in this arid country. The site of bumbling leaders and overwhelmed rescuers turning to the outside world for help sparked anger over the vulnerability of a nervous — and densely populated — home front.

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Late Sunday, a senior fire official, Boaz Rakia, declared the blaze under control, though it was unclear when it would be extinguished.

Israel has long prided itself on its ability to minimize civilian casualties in times of conflict. But just four years after a devastating war against Lebanese Hezbollah guerrillas, in which the civil defense system was caught off guard by waves of rocket fire, the nation still appears ill-prepared to handle its next disaster.

"We are entitled to expect of our governments not to be smart only after the fact but — at least once — to be smart before disaster strikes," Nahum Barnea, the nation's pre-eminent newspaper columnist, wrote in the Yediot Ahronot daily. "That hasn't happened because we have no national leadership here that is capable of rising above the immediate problems."

Israeli media are pointing fingers at a number of officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Interior Minister Eli Yishai, a politician from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party whose office oversees fire services. Yishai made a handy target because his party is widely despised by Israel's secular Jewish majority.

But there was little expectation heads will roll, a prospect likely to add to the lack of confidence in the leadership.

With national leaders routinely describing Iran — which Israel and the U.S. believe is trying to develop nuclear weapons — as the country's greatest threat, Maariv columnist Ben Caspit asked how Israel could conceive of attacking Iran's nuclear facilities, "an act liable to lead to a war of missiles on an enormous scale never seen before in the world, without even giving a shred of consideration to Israel's ability to put out fires?"

The blaze, believed to be the result of negligence by two teenagers smoking a water pipe, broke out on Thursday, and quickly spread because of unseasonably hot and dry conditions. A 20-square-mile (50-square-kilometer) area, about half of the Carmel forest, a popular nature spot on the outskirts of Israel's third-largest city, Haifa, has been torched, and 17,000 people were evacuated from their homes.

The blaze engulfed a bus full of prison guards helping in rescue efforts, killing 37 people in a matter of moments. Two senior police officers and two firefighters were also killed.

Over the weekend, Israeli TV and radio stations carried reports from the site of what they dubbed "the Carmel disaster."

Sunday's newspapers printed profiles of the victims, among them a 16-year-old honors student who volunteered with the fire service. Reflecting the deep sense of national loss, radio stations broadcast somber music throughout the day — a custom usually confined to wartime.

Throughout the crisis, Netanyahu has been in damage-control mode. Over the Jewish Sabbath, when his office is usually silent, the prime minister's staff bombarded reporters with 35 telephone text messages informing them of his every move and meeting.

Netanyahu repeatedly appeared before TV cameras to portray himself as being in charge, even while admitting the government was overwhelmed as it cobbled together an international coalition of firefighting crews.

That effort received a welcome boost Sunday with the arrival of what the government called the world's largest fire extinguisher — an American Boeing 747 fitted to hold 20,000 gallons of water and fire retardants.

Even before the fire was put out, officials were talking of forming an official commission of inquiry — like the investigation that led to a slew of high-profile resignations after the 2006 Lebanon war.

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Israeli firefighters have complained for years of undersized crews, outdated equipment and minimal supplies. While Israel has a highly sophisticated air force, its firefighting force of 1,400 doesn't have a single plane. It ran out of flame retardants on the first day of the blaze.

In a country better known for sending its own rescue teams to help other countries cope with disasters, the sense of helplessness left many ill-at-ease.

"This means nationwide soul searching — how we, as such an advanced and sophisticated nation, arrived at such a resounding failure to protect our citizens and our environment," Cabinet Minister Isaac Herzog told Army Radio.

Holding his weekly Cabinet meeting in the fire zone Sunday, Netanyahu was unapologetic for turning to outside help, saying that even the U.S. needed foreign assistance in combatting massive wildfires in California.

Even Palestinian firefighters — ordinarily barred from entering Israel — passed through the barrier that divides the two peoples to join the unprecedented international effort.

Netanyahu says Israel will now form an airborne firefighting force. He also has vowed to quickly compensate victims and revive the area.

"I do not want delays. I do not want bureaucracy," he said. "I want quick solutions."

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