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December 15, 2016 12:48 pm

Rehabilitation and Celebration: Haifa Slowly Comes Back to Life in Aftermath of Fires

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Israelis inspect the damage to a burnt house in Haifa Nov. 25, 2016. Photo: Gili Yaari/Flash90.

Israelis inspect the damage to a burnt house in Haifa Nov. 25, 2016. Photo: Gili Yaari/Flash90.

Meir Barzilay was one of the lucky Haifa residents during Israel’s recent wave of fires.

“I live in a row of six houses,” he said. “Somehow, the fire magically jumped from house number two directly to number four, sparing us.”

Barzilay pointed to the plastic tarp acting as the roof for a neighbor’s house after the wood was eaten away by the flames. The wind still carries the smell of ashes. The once tree-filled green hillsides are grey and black. In Haifa alone, the blazes consumed 700 acres of vegetation.

Barzilay’s house lies on Shahar street in the Romema district, the Haifa neighborhood hit hardest by the fires that invaded central and northern Israel for eight days last month. Starting on Nov. 22, firefighters across Israel battled blazes in 1,773 locations, with the city of Haifa sustaining the worst of them. 60,000 Haifa residents were evacuated at the height of the disaster, and eight-hundred apartments are now uninhabitable, leaving 1,700 people homeless. The damage was so severe that entire buildings will have to be demolished.

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“The municipality is doing a great job to help us. We are grateful for the rapid support,” Barzilay said, and gave Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav, who sat next to him, a pat on the shoulder.

Yahav nodded in agreement, adding, “I am very impressed by the efficient rescue and assistance the city provided. The fire department and military sent a positive message to the citizens, a message of security.”

The destruction of Haifa’s public areas amounts to half a billion shekels (about $130 million) of damage, including damage to the city’s infrastructure and sewage systems. Haifa’s full rehabilitation will take up to 30 years, officials say. Damages to private property have yet to be fully assessed.

Whether or not the wildfires were caused by nationalistically-motivated Arab arsonists ultimately makes no difference to Yahav. “There is no way to prove if any of this was intentional or not. And I honestly do not care,” said the mayor, who calls Haifa the only “sane” city in Israel and “a place in which such events will not destabilize the atmosphere of mutual Jewish and Arabic existence.”

All of the area’s Arab municipalities and institutions immediately offered their help to Haifa during the wave of fires, says Imam Rashad Abu al-Hija of the city’s Al Jarina Great Mosque. “We are offering our mosque as a place of refuge and donated wood to rebuild a synagogue that was destroyed in one of the fires,” he said.

The imam added that he is saddened by how the Arab population is reflexively blamed for the fires despite the community’s involvement in the rescue and rehabilitation process. But, with the Israel Police currently holding 30 individuals on suspicion of arson or incitement, al-Hija said that if “one of them will be found guilty, then they should be punished to the full extent of the law.”

Ariel Waterman, Haifa’s city engineer, is certain some of the fires were intentional. “They broke out almost simultaneously at distinct locations within the region. And the first one started at the fire department itself, rendering immediate rescue and assistance all the more difficult,” he explained, the scorched hills of Ramat Eshkol behind him.

Despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s declaration that Israel will rebuild homes and rehabilitate forests “10-times-fold,” full rehabilitation will be a long-term process, with the removal of burnt material alone potentially taking up to four years, Waterman argued. One of the lessons learned from this natural catastrophe is to never again plant pine trees between houses or in residential areas.

“The pine cones were so dry and incredibly flammable that they exploded once they caught fire, and thus carried it further and further,” Waterman said, lamenting the loss of Haifa’s iconic charm, in which city and nature fused, with forest penetrating residential areas.

Nevertheless, Haifa has started to celebrate life again. During a food festival, Jewish and Arab chefs from all over the country presented Levant cuisine, including some dishes that were near extinction but are being restored, as well as foods from Syria and Lebanon that most Israelis had never previously tasted. More festivities are around the corner, such as Haifa’s so-called “Holiday of Holidays,” which is celebrated annually over the course of three December weekends amid Hanukkah and Christmas. With concerts, performances and street fairs, this mega-event celebrates the unity of the three monotheistic religions and will contribute a glimpse of hope to the recovering city.

“No matter what,” said Mayor Yahav, “never postpone a festival.”

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