Nature, wildlife also victims of rockets

MOUNT NAFTALI FOREST, Israel (AP) — Huge swaths of forests and fields across northern Israel have been scorched by thousands of Hezbollah rocket strikes over the past three weeks, and experts said it would take nature at least 50 years to recover.

Charred branches stuck out of the ground like grave markers at the Mount Naftali Forest overlooking Kiryat Shemona, where entire fields have been reduced to heaps of ash and countless animals killed. But with 19 Israeli civilians killed by the rockets, the plight of the forest has been overlooked.

“Usually when people get hurt so does nature, and the other way around,” said Yossi Sarid, a former environment minister. “People do take precedence over nature and wildlife, but the damage is simply awful.”

In all, the rocket fire has destroyed 16,500 acres of forests and grazing fields, according to Michael Weinberger, the forest supervisor for the Jewish National Fund, the top administrator of Israel’s forests. About 1 million trees were destroyed.

The Mount Naftali Forest was hit by a series of Katyusha rockets earlier this week, setting it ablaze. Afternoon gusts carried the flames, wiping out some 750 acres and trapping gazelles, coyotes, jackals, rabbits and snakes. The stench of smoke lingered a day later. What was once green is now black and gray. More rockets pounded the forest Wednesday.

Firefighters have been stretched to the limit battling the blazes caused by rockets in urban areas and are reluctant to enter the dangerous, dry and potentially deadly terrain of the forest fires.

“With all due respect to nature, I will not risk the lives of my men for it,” said Danny Hananiya, the fire department chief in the Northern Galilee, whose men have battled some 1,200 fires. “It is painful to see, but I have to decide between nature and the firefighters.”

Instead, the task of protecting nature falls on the shoulders of forest rangers, many of whom have risked their lives in recent weeks trying to limit the ecological damage.

“Every green tree standing here is a result of our work,” said Ido Rasis, 55. “I am here because we need to save every tree we can.”

The rangers are dispatched in teams of four to various locations in the woods, where they wait for the rockets and pounce on fires before they spread out of control. Wearing a wide-brim hat, Rasis awaits the next volley as he watches a fire rage in the distance.

Unlike buildings, bridges and other infrastructure that can quickly be rebuilt, forests will need 50 to 60 years to return to what they were before fighting started, said Omri Bonneh, the director of the Jewish National Fund’s northern region.

And unlike other services mobilized in this war, such as the army, police and paramedics, the rangers know their real work still lies ahead.

“Our main job will be after the war ends, to rehabilitate the entire system,” said Amikam Riglin, chief of law enforcement at the Jewish National Fund. “This is just the beginning.”

The agency’s chief ecologist, Yoram Goldring, said it would take many years to restore balance to the forest’s ecosystem _ if they’re lucky. While some of the larger animals may have managed to escape, he said, the reptiles and insects were all lost.

The destruction of Mount Naftali is all the more painful since it is not a natural forest, but one meticulously planted by man. These mountains were bare when Israel was established back in 1948.

Yossi Biton, 53, a Jewish National Fund representative in northern Israel has been with the service for 20 years, following in the footsteps of his father.

“My father planted this forest for 40 years, and now I have to do it all over again,” he said. “An entire history has been erased in a single hour. It’s like turning heaven into hell.”