Israel’s Other Fires

December, 06 2016
Israel's fires

David King / Flickr


In Israel, Igniting the Fires of Collective Blame

By Eetta Prince-Gibson

An evil wind has been burning across Israel.

In the Bible, (Exodus 10:13), it is called ruach kadim—an extremely dry easterly wind that comes up from the deserts of Arabia every year, spreading sand, dust and brush and forest fires.

The wind had been blowing for weeks and there had been no rain for more than six months. Even before the fires started in late November, the Fire Protection Service had issued a directive prohibiting the lighting of fires in open spaces. In the Jerusalem district, fire and rescue services had been on high-alert.

And then the fires broke out. Over eight days in late November, 1,773 separate fires broke out in Israel— 39 of which required ten or more crews to put out. More than 80,000 people were evacuated from Haifa, a northern port city, and thousands were evacuated from other areas as well. As the fires blazed across Israel’s northern and central regions, maxed-out Israeli firefighting crews were joined by crews from Cyprus, Italy, Russia, Turkey, Croatia, France, Spain, Azerbaijan, Ukraine, the U.S. and Egypt. Notably, the Palestinian Authority sent eight fire trucks and over 40 fighters.

According to the Jewish National Fund, by the time the flames were doused, over 10,000 acres of forest and over 2,700 acres of urban areas had been destroyed. At least 700 homes had been damaged, and another 560 were completely destroyed. No human lives were lost and 140 people suffered fire-related injuries, none of them serious, but the psychological cost of trauma and loss of home and property can’t be estimated.

The rains finally came at the end of the week, too late to help put out the fires, but at least helping to put an end to fire season. The ruach kadim quieted down.

But the evil winds that our politicians stirred up may not quiet down so quickly.

Well before the fire officials could begin to determine whether the fires were caused by arson or not, Israeli politicians were competing among themselves to be the first and the most vocal to denounce the “firefadda.” With no justification, they cast collective blame on all Israel’s Arab citizens. The fires, they insisted, were the result of Arab terror—which, in Israel-speak, means Israel’s Arab citizens.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led the attack. At a press conference with security forces and emergency responders, he declared, “Every fire caused by arson, or by incitement to arson, is terrorism. Anyone who tries to burn parts of the State of Israel will be punished severely.”

Added Education Minister Naftali Bennett, “Only he who the country doesn’t belong to him is capable of burning it.” Culture Minister Miri Regev said: “We must catch the terrorists who are burning our forests and endangering lives!” Others suggested that Arab arsonists’ citizenship be rescinded, or that they be deported, or that their homes be destroyed, or all of the above and worse. Speaking from the Knesset podium, MK Oren Hazan (Likud) warned, “It’s time we pay them back in kind. An eye for an eye isn’t far from reality.”

Now, two weeks later, this is what we know from officials about the causes of the fires. According to a statement from the Israel Fire and Rescue Services, 40 of the fires were the result of arson; the majority of these took place beyond the Green Line. The others are assumed to have been caused by negligence or weather conditions. At least one fire was reportedly caused when security forces, chasing after suspected potential arsonists, used flares in the highly inflammable area. (The potential arsonists were discovered to have been thieves.)

There have been dozens of arrests, but only 17 have been remanded. The Finance Ministry has issued a list (in order to determine qualification for compensation claims) of less than 12 regions, in both Israel and the West Bank, “that were deliberately ignited and of which the probable cause appears to be hostile acts.”

Inside Israel, five of the arson cases took place inside Nazareth; one, Umm al-Fahm, was set as a protest against poor garbage removal services and did not spread. This is also a reminder that not all arson is terror. The Carmel Fire of 2010, which took 44 lives and destroyed over 12,000 acres, was caused by a teenagers smoking a hookah.

So yes, there were cases of arson, and yes, it is even safe to assume that some of them were nationalistically motivated. And on Arabic-language social media, especially in the territories, some cheered the “destruction of the State of Israel.”

The arsonists should be punished. But the facts show that they are certainly a minority, just like Jewish terrorists are a minority—like the ones who set fire to a home in the West Bank village of Duma, killing a child and his parents. Or the ones who bludgeoned 16-year-old Jerusalem resident Muhammad Abu Khdeir and set him on fire while he was still alive.

Not surprisingly, none of the politicians have apologized for casting collective blame or fueling the fires of mutual hatred and suspicion. This government focuses on fear, in the hope that it will distract the public from its poor foreign policy, the lack of any real peace plan, the corruption and conflict of interest scandals that Netanyahu is facing. Netanyahu seems to think that he really will be Prime Minister forever, but acts as if every day is an election day. And, as he and President-elect Donald Trump know very well, there is nothing like stoking the fires of mutual hatred and suspicion to get out the vote.

Yet, despite our politicians, there were other winds blowing from other directions. Arabs and Jews, firefighters and civilians, worked side by side to fight the blazes. Even the Islamic movement opened an emergency center for anyone—Jew or Arab—who was evacuated. Arab MKs went on the radio to offer their homes to evacuees. Arab community centers provided shelter. In the Arab village of Abu Ghosh, all of the restaurants provided free food to the evacuees from Nataf, a nearby Jewish village that suffered massive damage, including the total loss of a popular, well-loved restaurant. The kibbutzim around Neve Shalom, Israel’s only Jewish-Arab village, took in evacuees in the early hours of the morning; they didn’t ask if they were Arab or Jewish.

We all share a primordial fear of the fires that can destroy our land, possessions, and very lives. I am also afraid of the fires that can consume us from within. I am very thankful to our firefighters, and those from all over the world, including the Palestinian Authority, for their heroic efforts, and I am just as thankful to the citizens who realize that some fires can be put out only with only shared faith in the future and mutual respect for each other.

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One thought on “Israel’s Other Fires

  1. Shira Diana Watson says:

    An excellent job of denial by minimization. I understand you are afraid. Let’s try to find the truth hiding behind the fear:

    ‘There have been dozens of arrests, but only 17 have been remanded.’ So there ARE 17 suspected arsonists with sufficient evidence to be remanded for trial.

    ‘Over eight days in late November, 1,773 separate fires broke out in Israel . . .The rains finally came at the end of the week, too late to help put out the fires.’

    As I remember, the fires were under control by Sunday, 4 days before the rains came on Thursday. No new fires broke out in that time, down from more than 200 per day the week before. That to me is evidence that, while not everyone who was arrested was an arsonist, there WERE actual arsonists who were arrested.

    ‘ . . . [L]ess than 12 regions “that were deliberately ignited and of which the probable cause appears to be hostile acts.”

    What does ‘less than 12’ mean? More than 10? A number ‘less than 12’ is small enough to be accurately reported. It doesn’t require an estimate.

    Do the homes of the 80,000 people evacuated from Haifa count as one region or two? How big is a ‘region’? You gave a way to estimate the answer:

    ‘[O]ver 10,000 acres of forest and over 2,700 acres of urban areas had been destroyed.’ This averages to more than 1,000 acres per region.

    1,000 acres converts to 1.5625 square miles – the average size of one region is equivalent to a square more than 1-1/4 miles on each side. Destroyed. But you don’t want us to be too angry. That is why you said ‘less than 12.’

    It is true that the ‘Carmel Fire of 2010’ was not caused by arson. But then, no one said it was. The Israeli government did not call the Carmel Fire arson 6 years ago, but did call this year’s fires arson. Further evidence that, maybe, they actually knew what they were talking about.

    Why do you need to trot out the past actions of some sick individuals? Because the victims were Arab or because they burned to death? Does that make the recent arson less of an outrage? That no people died in the recent fires was a miracle. It was not by the intent of the arsonists.

    Moreover, Israeli Jews do not celebrate the horrific acts you cited – we deplore them. The perpetrators were put on trial and punished. Sadly, there have been Jews who committed atrocities. Every society has sick people. In Israel, terrorists are arrested and put on trial no matter there race or religion. We do not celebrate terrorism on social media, no matter who are the perpetrators or the victims. (Again, there may be some sick individuals who do, but the majority of us do not.) In this case it is you who are fanning the flames.

    By the way, ‘Arab terror [does NOT] in Israel-speak, mean Israel’s Arab citizens.’ It refers to acts of terror that are committed by Arabs, regardless of their citizenship. We know that many terrorists travel into Israel to commit their acts of terror. The intended victims are Israeli Jews, but it doesn’t seem to bother the terrorists if Israeli Arabs are harmed as well.

    I sincerely believe that the only path to Peace lies through Truth. This is what you could have said:

    There were many bad fires. More than 12,700 acres of land were destroyed. Thankfully, no people were killed. Some proportion of the fires were caused by Arab arsonists of unknown citizenship. Many Israeli Jews believe the arsonists had political motives, that is, that the arson was in fact terrorism.

    Some Israeli politicians spoke strongly about wanting to capture and punish terrorists, which frightens you. You feel that the politicians said this too soon.

    In retrospect, we know that some, but not all, of the arson was perpetrated by terrorists. Of the suspected arsonists that were arrested, all but 17 have been released. The fires stopped [after the arrests, 4 days] before the rains came.

    You think the politicians should apologize for saying ‘terrorism’ before it had been proven to be true. You are particularly frightened by Bibi Netanyahu and Donald Trump. You are consoled by the fact that firefighters from all over the world, including the PA, worked alongside Israeli citizens to fight the blaze.

    There IS hope for the future. It involves stepping back, taking a breath, acknowledging our feelings, and speaking the truth, no matter how uncomfortable or frightening we find it.

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