TEL AVIV // Israel struggled yesterday to contain the biggest forest fire in its 62-year history, which has claimed the lives of at least 42 people, displaced thousands and spurred the country to make a rare plea for international assistance.
The blaze, which began raging at midday on Thursday in the verdant region near the northern port city of Haifa, also exposed major faults in Israel's emergency services, which fell far short of the necessary manpower and equipment needed and was criticised for responding too slowly to the disaster.
Some commentators even warned that such deficiencies indicate that Israel may be unprepared to handle the consequences of a major war or strike on its civilians.
As a procession of funerals began for the fire's casualties, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, convened an emergency meeting of his security cabinet in Tel Aviv. Looking sombre, he said that Israel "can't cope with a forest blaze of this type, accompanied by such strong winds". Late on Thursday, he called the fire "a disaster on a scale we have never seen before".
Television footage showed plumes of smoke billowing towards the Mediterranean coastline as planes and helicopters repeatedly dumped tons of seawater onto the flames that burned almost a third of the Carmel pine forest, one of Israel's most visited tourist attractions. The fire had prompted the evacuation of at least 15,000 people from houses, a university, a hospital and three prisons.
On Thursday, the flames claimed the lives of at least 42 people, most of them prison guard trainees, who were on a bus driving on a winding hill road to rescue 500 inmates in a prison at the site of the fires. The bus caught ablaze after a fallen tree blocked its path. The dead included a firefighter and two policemen.
Prompted by Israel's call for international help, firefighting teams, aircraft and equipment streamed in from countries including Greece, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Britain, Jordan and Russia yesterday.
Mr Netanyahu also appeared to take advantage of the blaze to try to mend strained relations with Turkey, which put aside tensions over Israel's policies towards the Palestinians and sent two firefighting planes. The premier sent out a statement saying that he had spoken with Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey's prime minister, telling him he hoped that the assistance "will be an opening toward improving relations between our two countries".
He did not hesitate to try to boost the country's image in the face of growing international condemnation of its settlement policies and restrictions on Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and in the Gaza Strip. The aid "shows there is support for Israel and identification with it from every direction," he said. Avigdor Lieberman, the foreign minister, said in a radio interview that he hoped the fire could be put out by tonight.
Police investigators did not rule out yesterday that the fire may have been deliberately started, and there were suggestions that it may have begun at an illegal rubbish dump. Some officials said that the fire may have been stoked by unusually hot and dry conditions following the driest November in the country's history.
The investigators appeared to rule out the possibility it may have been an attack by a Palestinian group.
With the country concentrating its resources over the years mainly on police and military forces, it faced a barrage of criticism that it is paying the price for leaving its firefighters undermanned and underfunded.
Mr Netanyahu appeared to concede the shortcomings, saying: "There is a problem. Israel was not prepared for this type of fire."
Aluf Benn, a senior commentator for the liberal Haaretz newspaper, wrote that Israel has only one firefighter for every 10,000 civilians, far short of the international requirements that call for a ratio of one to 1,000. Mr Benn said the faults discovered in Israel's disaster-handling capabilities should force the country to rethink any plans to launch wars with neighbours or even carry out a strike against archrival Iran.
"Yesterday it turned out that Israel was not prepared for war or a mass terrorist strike that would cause many casualties in the home front," he wrote. "Under such circumstances, it is best for Israel not to embark on a war against Iran, which will involve thousands of missiles being fired on the home front."