November 27, 2016

Israel on Fire

Haifa on fire (AFP)
You can call it a fire intifada, an arson intifada or random fires. The truth is that Israel is on fire. Literally. Some 80,000 Israelis have been evacuated from their homes in the last week. 

There have been 220 separate fires burning in northern and central Israel leaving many families homeless, precious forests ruined and fields ravaged.

We have had no rain all November.  There has been just one insignificant rainfall in parts of the country since last winter. Everything here is bone dry. And then the winds picked up. They were blowing furiously last week and our tinderbox of a country caught fire.

I do not know how these fires became an intifada but they did. A single naturally caused fire plus perhaps some suspicious reports about arson literally sparked a blaze. 

There were fires all around Jerusalem, Modi’in, Haifa and many settlements in the Yehuda and Shomron area. Perpetrators starting these fires were caught on camera.  They even tried to set the Haifa fire station on fire in order to paralyze the fire fighting crews. Many have been arrested. And the damage continues.

See the chaos from Saturday in the once tranquil forested town of Beit Meir, which is just outside Jerusalem off Highway 1.

Everyone in Beit Meir was evacuated from their homes, including 300 people from a guesthouse. Three perpetrators were seen fleeing the area and one has since been arrested.

International aid came quickly. The US Supertanker with 50 American firefighters landed in Israel on Friday. With its 19,600 gallons of fire retardant, it was able to contain the flames outside Jerusalem near the main highway. 

Egypt has sent two helicopters and Azerbaijan sent a plane. Jordan responded with fire trucks and firefighters. Turkey, Russia, Italy and Croatia also committed to help. The Palestinians arrived with eight fire trucks and 40 firefighters, working along Israelis in Haifa to help contain the raging inferno.

KKL website home page
From rockets to knives to car rammings to matches, I guess we’ve seen it all here. Unfortunately. 

Yet when the going gets tough, Israelis pull up their sleeves and run to help.  

A hotline was set up by the KKL (Keren Kayemet Leumi) asking for volunteers who had 4x4 cars to guard the forests.  The phone lines were flooded with willing helpers, including my husband Amir.

Plea to guard the forests

Amir left a phone message and received a call back on Friday. He was asked where he lived and then given a choice of forests in our area. 

He chose a forest nearby and was told to bring a companion and to drive around the forest looking for suspicious activity. If he were to see something, he was to call the police or the fire department.

He was grateful to be able to do something. In emergency situations, it is so hard to see suffering and feel powerless. Amir called his fellow adventurer-friend Ken and they arranged to go out Saturday evening for a four-hour shift.  He brought along a fire extinguisher just in case, while Ken decided a baseball bat could be helpful.

Amir and Ken on guard duty.
They set off last night. When they arrived at the tiny forest, a police car was already there. The police stopped them right away, asked them who they were and thanked them for their assistance. 

While Amir and Ken were driving around, they noticed other cars in the middle of the night in this small dark forest. These were other Israeli volunteers also looking around for arsonists.  

Eventually one car flagged them down; it was he next shift of volunteers assigned to this tiny forest. These volunteers were so zealous about protecting their country, they turned up early and told Amir and Ken to go home.  

Turns out this tiny dark forest seemed to be a little crowded for a Saturday night. Hopefully all forests, groves, towns and settlements across Israel are being watched by such caring eyes.

Last week, two arsonists set fires outside the town of Ariel in broad daylight by a road. With glee, they returned back to their village. The Israeli motorists who saw this happen jumped out of their cars and started dousing the fires with water bottles.  

Just outside Haifa, a yeshiva was told to keep watch. As the students guarded the grounds, they saw two young arsonists setting fires right by the school building. The students reacted quickly and were able to stop their school from burning down. They even tried to run after the criminals but could not catch them.

Yesterday, three separate fires were started by arsonists in the town of Neve Tsuf. 350 people were evacuated and 15 homes were burnt down to the ground. An appeal went out last night for people to bring bedding, towels and clothes for the families who now have nothing. Cars left an hour later loaded down with supplies.
Neve Tsuf engulfed in flames (Israel national News)

There is also a hotline for families who have room in their homes to host displaced families. This same appeal happened with northern families in the Lebanon war and also in Tsuk Eitan to aid families living near Gaza.

Fires may burn down homes, schools and forests but the hearts of Israelis burn with pride, unity and love. Now, if only we could have some rain...

November 22, 2016

Birds Know No Borders

“Make sure you’re there for sunset.”

That’s what we were told as we made our way to the Agamon Nature Reserve in the Hula Valley.

Fall and spring are prime time for viewing the incredible bird migration that passes through Israel.  Some 500 million birds pass through Israel from Europe and Asia to Africa and back again in the spring.

Of these plentiful visitors, 100,000 are Eurasian cranes. There are so many coming for R&R in the Hula Valley, this is one of the world’s largest concentration of cranes.  It’s one thing to read the statistics and quite another to actually be there.

We eagerly stood in line to get our binoculars and soon headed off in our golf cart, following the trail signs. It was 4pm. The trail wound through lush treed areas and past marshy pools.

Our first sighting!  We pulled over to  observe a white pelican hanging out, taking in the last rays of sun. 

We saw fat yet famished furry creatures called nutria (or coypu), the Israeli form of a beaver. 

Spur-winged plovers, with their striking black and white tuxedo like markings, busied themselves on the shore. The Mallard Ducks seems headless, obsessively nibbling on underwater dinner, displaying only their fluffy rears.  We saw turtles playing Yertle, claiming a mini fiefdom of mud poking from the middle of the lake. Just being, well,  turtles.

Catching a burst of blue, we focused our binoculars on a tree and saw two kingfishers with flashy turquoise wings staring back at us.

We heard some rustling and saw two wild boar in the bushes across the water. (Close enough to see but enough distance to feel secure!)

It was quickly becoming dark and we heard honking sounds from above. 

The cranes. 

They were flying in formation and coming in quickly from all directions. They filled the skies with their calls, circling the lake and pulling out their long legs to make a perfect landing in the very crowded water. 

Like ballet slippers brushing the stage, they barely made a ripple on the lake. (If only I could park my car so effortlessly.) The cranes sailed to a sweet sleeping spot by the rushes and tucked in their wings for the night.

We had heard a guide explain that the cranes prefer to roost in water as the temperature at night is warmer than the air.

As we looked up a second time, we saw the sky almost blackened against the orange-streaked clouds as the sun set behind the mountains. 

The birds continued to come. We pointed up and shouted. “Here.” “And here.” Our necks strained as we tried to spot one flock. And then another. We snapped photos and video, yet this did not capture the power and concentration of these majestic birds.

They are on a huge trip from Europe heading all the way to Africa and are enjoying a well-deserved break to rest and feed. The Hula has become one popular bed and breakfast for birds. I quickly concluded that if I were a crane, I would just stay put paddling around these warm tropical marshes. Nice digs!

We were in awe; at a juncture when nature is so overwhelmingly majestic, words are not sufficient. Get a piece of the beauty and the intensity of sound on this Hula Valley video of our visit.

This powerful moment may have lasted just 10 minutes. And then it was dark. And quiet. And our golf cart was overdue!

We zipped back in darkness, not knowing where our cart’s headlights were. The park was so tranquil and serene after the incredible bed-time ritual of these birds.

I wish them all a safe trip to Africa, but know that dangers await these migrating birds. There are collisions with aircraft and poisonings caused by agriculture.

Yet is comes as not surprise that Israel is taking this to heart and finding solutions. One ornithologist, Dr. Yossi Leshem, has devised ways to reduce the deaths of these birds. He has studied the migratory patterns up close and has helped reduce air collisions with birds by 90 per cent. He has set up radar systems that are in constant contact with the IDF air force.

He is also developing cooperation with our neighbours so that they too can protect this incredible natural phenomenon. You will be inspired as you watch the two videos about his progress. 

His work is of utmost importance because, unlike the political world, birds know no borders. If only we could all learn this, we too could soar!