Light Amid the Darkness

An expedition behind police lines into the smoldering communities of Mt. Carmel, where everyone learned a lesson last weekend, of one kind or another.

And darkness was upon the face of the earth. From time to time the howl of jackals rises from the valley, disturbing the silence. Perhaps they too are bewailing the fire. Everything is black all around. Through the dimness it is possible to spot four young kibbutzniks from Beit Oren, about to light a fire on a portable grill near the burnt and deserted neighborhood that had been their home. They wait for the roar of the helicopters pursuing the flames to disappear and light a fire, to prepare a first hot meal for themselves after three tumultuous days.

Just a single candle illuminates their faces, in a weak reddish-yellow light, but the signs of shock are evident, even when they say they're "making the best of the whole bummer."

Carmel fire - Alex Levac
Alex Levac

Boaz, who for 15 years managed B-Side, the kibbutz's wild dance club, now a scorched ruin, suddenly chokes up. He had seen the bus burning in the valley, and is thus not prepared to talk about the club, his life's work, that has burnt to the ground.

A tough and gritty group of men, so very Israeli, is making themselves dinner in a poykeh, a cauldron, in which "you put in everything you have, add a bottle of Chardonnay and cook." They relate to me with scorn for not knowing what a poykeh is.

They chain-smoke Noblesse cigarettes, wax nostalgic for the French girl volunteers of the past and talk into the slowly deepening night, unable, despite their toughness, to hide the signs of trauma.

With their own hands they managed to save the home of their friend Ganz the Fox; the two apartments on either side of him went up in flames. They also saved the chicken coop, whose tenants had in any case "already become schnitzel," as they say.

They relate that they ran "from spark to spark," taking advantage of windows of opportunity only seconds long, fleeting moments of grace, to save everything possible.

When the police special-ops force came to evacuate them Friday, they hid under the buildings. "Like in the Warsaw Ghetto," says Boaz. "It was very confusing."

We sit on sofas they had thrown out of burnt buildings during the night, among the scorched pines and suffocating smoke. Tonight they will once again sleep under the open sky, on Ganz's wooden deck, which was spared. Boaz's home was also saved because his wife, who hates dust, had closed the windows. But all the rest of the homes behind us, a row of kibbutz houses of several stories, a transitional neighborhood, now stand black, bleak and silent.

For two days I roamed the burnt Carmel, among the houses of Ein Hod, Ein Hud, Isfiya, Tirat Carmel and Beit Oren, circumventing the police barriers on dirt roads and banana-tree paths. Even the volunteer policeman from the motorcycle unit, who recalled we had been together 40 years ago in a youth delegation to America, told us we weren't allowed through.

In this land of fire this week I met Israelis I hadn't known: firemen with scorched faces and red eyes who fought for their lost honor; artists from Ein Hod whose homes had become burnt offerings; restaurateur-refugees from Ein Hud, who are not prepared to talk any more about their former village (Ein Hod ); and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, a policeman with a common touch and no self-important airs, who circulated among all of the others with devotion worthy of mention.

This fire was egalitarian, consuming not only the homes of the poor; so was the fraternity evinced by a great many citizens. Add to this the astonishment that gripped fireman Maj. Yisrael Gorin and his colleagues, who accompanied other firefighters from Jenin and Bethlehem - people who, in a single stroke, demolished everything the Israelis had thought about Palestinians. And add the generous international aid, which in a single stroke demolished the image we so love of "the whole world is against us." And in a single moment, you have a picture that is a mirror image of the usual one. Look at what a lone nargileh ember from Isfiya, which this week we suddenly started to pronounce correctly, can do.

Supertanker superwonder

On Shabbat, the skies were still black and the forest red-black; by the next day everything was eerily gray. On the ridge of the University of Haifa, scores of journalists and civilians stood on Sunday, watching the superwonder, the supertanker, the expensive toy from America, brought to us by our prime minister after his military secretary found it on the Internet. A green and red jumbo was for a moment a ridiculous attraction. It circled above Haifa again and again, as though to show off.

I marveled more at the group of Greek firefighters who sprawled, drained, in the afternoon near the entrance to Ein Hod. Their commander, Dikas Paniyotis, a three-star fire captain from Athens, who was airlifted in 2004 to an earthquake in Morocco and put out a fire that lasted for 20 days in the Peloponnese. His most recent mission was on the island of Andros; on Saturday evening he arrived and slept at a "military hotel" he thinks is called Olga. The chicken he ate reminded him of souvlaki, and the Carmel also reminds him of the landscape of his country, as does the weather. The Israelis' firefighting equipment in fact looked all right to him, maybe a bit more outdated than the Greeks', and he earns 1,800 euros a month. Only why is it that Israelis love the chanteuse Glykeria so much? Captain Panyotis has also heard about Maccabi Tel Aviv and now his subordinates are exchanging shirts with their Israeli colleagues, like at the end of a soccer match.

Fireman Doron Malul, from Kiryat Shmona, was at a seminar not long ago in Cyprus, where he met Greek firefighters, "And as fate would have it, we are meeting here."

Sunday did indeed resemble the end of a game. Half-past the war. On the radio they were still calling upon the inhabitants of Isfiya to close windows and turn on air conditioners, but in that Druze town - which for Jews is a shopping, grilled meat and car-body repair town - they ignored the warnings and hastened to erect rent-a-fences in advance of the prime minister's visit to the town. Isfiya, home of Halaby Tires, Halaby Building Materials, Halaby Stone Suppliers and Halaby the dentist.

Josh Cohen also phones us, worried: Get into a house, the jumbo jet is spitting dangerous substances. On Shabbat, we had been walking with him in Ein Hod; Josh reported on the situation to homeowners on his mobile phone. Now he is sitting at the entrance to his own house, new and spared any damage, and charging the phone in his car. There is no electricity in the village.

Nor is there any electricity in Ein Hud, up the hill, but there they are used to it: Until two years ago, the village was unrecognized and unelectrified. The word "evacuation" is also loaded with significance in this village of refugees; they have already been evacuated from Ein Hod and not allowed to return.

On Saturday only a handful of men remained in that village, to guard against looters, who had already been, and to watch for the fire, which never arrived. Three hundred souls, all members of one big quarreling family.

The blue-eyed local council head, Mohammed Abu Alhaija, doesn't understand how a country that has a nuclear bomb doesn't have fire-extinguishing materials. But he is impressed by the solidarity expressed by Jews and Arabs concerning his evacuated village. He had many phone calls: "I can't believe it's like this. Everyone is offering help and it brings a bit of happiness to the eyes."

But the men are dejected: The women have not yet returned to the village; there is no one who will cook or launder. "Now we are beginning to discover our deficiencies," smiles the council head.

'Drugged mice'

Meanwhile, at Ein Hod's Habayit restaurant, where 400 diners had canceled their reservations for Saturday, vegetables lay in the sun. This was an opportunity to inaugurate the new taboun (clay oven ) against the backdrop of the fire in the valley; we were rewarded with pita with olive oil and za'atar.

Micha Feigin's house, which was still burning on Saturday when we arrived, is now standing like another charred ruin of an Arab house from 1948.

Between Saturday and Monday, an unknown hand peeled the mourning notices off the fence of the home of Reuven Keiner, who was run over and killed last week, three days before the fire; now his house in Ein Hod is burnt down. A stone Arab house, with later additions built onto it. Nothing remains.

"Mashiah, Mashiah, Mashiah - Oy, Oy, Oy" sings the Chabad Hanukkah-mobile, which turned up everywhere, of course.

The policeman at the entrance to the road to Beit Oren from the direction of Haifa allows a guy who fixes flat tires to go through, but not journalists. Damon Prison stands abandoned, its barbed-wire fences orphaned. In front of the Cat Ballou restaurant, at Beit Oren's entrance, stand a large herd of horses, huddling close to one another. They, too, are caught up in the trauma.

We walk up the road to the kibbutz, in the direction of its southern neighborhood, which burned. On the mountain ridge stands a row of charred houses. Nearby is where the bus burned, leaving a black, sooty shadow on the asphalt.

The world's planes circle in a last sortie over our heads, in the last of the daylight. Two skeletons of cars on the side of the road, two melted motorbikes at the entrances to two buildings that were consumed. "We will win," a blue-and-white sticker on a door that survived. A grapefruit tree, its fruit squashed from the heat.

The B-Side DJ comes to see what remains of the club. The young kibbutzniks say the lesson they've learned from the fire is that there is no one to rely on, except themselves: "The police and the firemen ran around here like drugged mice. Only we know the turf." Now they will set up an emergency team at the kibbutz.

The jackals continue their howling. Boaz says they are late today; usually they howl "exactly as it becomes dark." A fire truck stands motionless in the Beit Oren cemetery, ready for whatever might happen; in its flashing lights the graveyard is alternately black and then illuminated in bursts of red.

Maj. Yisrael Giron and Capt. Natan Aharon, two veteran firemen, take us in their vehicle for a last nocturnal ride. The truck skips along the rocky ground, wobbling from side to side, cutting through the darkness, its headlights illuminating the charred trees and the two firemen lament: "We firemen don't get any recognition. We are the best firemen in the world."

Not long ago, one of them attended a training course in Switzerland on fighting fires in tunnels. Now they are here, in Israel's black Little Switzerland. Exhausted, thrilled by the popular appreciation they have won - and hoping they will at long last also win the esteem they deserve, like in America.