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.