With widespread fires tamed, Israelis seek answers

After the wildfires that raged across Israel for nearly a week were subdued on Nov. 27, Israelis surveyed the devastation in search of answers.

The fires consumed more than 32,000 acres of forest and brush across the country — an area more than twice the size of Manhattan. Tens of thousands of people fled their homes, and hundreds of buildings were burned to the ground. Many dozens of people were injured, though no one died.

The fires, which the Times of Israel said numbered 1,713, according to a Fire and Rescue Services spokesman, consumed 30 percent more area than the 2010 Carmel fire, which claimed 44 lives.

According to security officials, an unseasonable dry stretch and high winds, as well as negligence, ignited some of the fires, which then inspired alleged Arab arsonists to join in.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the scene of a fire in Zichron Yaakov in northern Israel on Nov. 23, 2016. photo/jta-pool-emil salman

Arab politicians protested against what they said was incitement against their community, but on Nov. 29, the Israel Tax Authority announced that the blazes were caused by arson and may have been terrorism, the Times of Israel reported. That announcement means that damages suffered, for the most part, will be included in state reparations regardless of whether the specific fire that damaged private property was set intentionally, the newspaper added.

Controlling the flames required a monumental Israeli operation and some outside assistance. About 2,000 Israeli firefighters fought the blazes last week, many of them working 24-hour shifts. They received assistance from a dozen countries from around the world and the region.

The Palestinian Authority sent 41 firefighters and eight trucks to help. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to thank him, according to a statement by the Prime Minister’s Office.

Maya Ben Zvi was one of many Israelis grappling with loss. Her popular family-run restaurant in the Jerusalem hills burned down Nov. 25 during a wedding party. A day later, she told Israel’s Channel 2 she would rebuild, but that it would take time.

“It is denial. I feel like I don’t know what I feel,” Ben Zvi said. “There are moments I weep and there are moments I block it. I cannot contain the force of 21 years invested in this place.”

Israeli ministers pledged to help people like Ben Zvi rebuild. At a special Cabinet meeting Nov. 27 in Haifa, the city hit hardest hit by the fires, Netanyahu said he had ordered ministers to clear bureaucratic hurdles for those affected by the fire. In Haifa, fires ravaged some 6,900 acres, destroyed 400 to 530 apartments and forced 60,000 residents to be evacuated, according to the Times of Israel.

On Nov. 26, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon approved immediate $650 payments to anyone whose homes had been destroyed or rendered uninhabitable by the fires, which burned from Nov. 18 to Nov. 27.

In addition, the Jewish Agency for Israel announced it will give grants of $1,000 to hundreds of families who need immediate financial assistance. Funding will be provided by contributions from the Jewish Federations of North America. “At trying times like these, world Jewry feels closely connected to what is taking place in Israel and comes to our help without hesitation,” Natan Sharansky, Jewish Agency chairman, said in a statement.

Meanwhile, Israeli security forces targeted alleged arsonists, whom they said began setting fires on Nov. 23, according to Israel’s Channel 10. At least 35 people — most of them Palestinians but at least 10 reportedly Arab Israelis — had been arrested on suspicion of setting fires or inciting others to do so.

Some were released, including a Bedouin-Israeli man who was locked up last week for a Facebook post that encouraged arson in a sarcastic tone and with the hashtag “Sarcasm, not serious.” Two Arab Israelis confessed in jail, police reportedly told the Nov. 27 Cabinet meeting.

Even as security officials warned against jumping to conclusions about the causes of the fires, Netanyahu and other Israeli politicians said they would respond to them as acts of terrorism.

Netanyahu declared Nov. 25 that there was “no doubt” arson was involved and blamed terrorists. He pledged to “act forcefully” against arsonists and called such actions worse than “other terror attacks.”

“The severity of these cases is not equal in severity to other terror attacks because it is so powerful and it draws on the forces of nature to sow death and destruction,” the prime minister said at the Nov. 27 Cabinet meeting.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan called for the destruction of the homes of arsonists. Israel controversially uses the method as a deterrent against Palestinian terrorists.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Education Minister Naftali Bennett said Israel should respond by expanding settlements. Liberman said there was “proof” that arsonists started 17 fires, and on Nov. 23, Bennett tweeted that only “someone who this land does not belong to” could have started the fires.

Though the Arabic hashtag “Israel is burning” was trending on Twitter, with tens of thousands using it to celebrate the ongoing destruction in Israel, Arab politicians decried “incitement” against their community by Israeli Jewish politicians and pointed out that some of the fires were started near Arab communities.

An Israeli firefighter imparts some information to his U.S. colleagues in a fire station in Herzliya, Nov. 27, 2016. photo/jta-emergency volunteers project

Ayman Odeh, the head of the Arab Joint List political party, reacted to Bennett’s tweet, saying, “To my regret, someone decided to exploit this dreadful situation to incite and to lash out at an entire community.” Hours later, Odeh called on any arsonists to stop, saying they were “the enemies of us all.”

Some Orthodox Jewish rabbis saw the fires as a divine retribution. Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, a leader in Israel’s settlement movement, said that the fires were God’s punishment for the government’s plans to uproot West Bank settlements, including Amona, which the Supreme Court declared to be illegally built on private Palestinian land.

“Strong winds usually carry rain, but now all is dry and flammable. It is G-d’s hand that does it,” Levanon wrote in a pamphlet. “Until the disgrace of the threat of eviction is lifted from Amona, Ofra and elsewhere, no rain will fall.”

In another related story, the pop group Air Supply gave free tickets to the wives of Israeli firefighters for its Nov. 27 concert in Haifa. The concert was rescheduled after being canceled on Nov. 25 due to the fires. “This is a gesture to wives of firefighters, who went through incredibly difficult days and nights,” concert producer Dudi Berkowitz said, according to Ynet. Air Supply also played in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem last week, its fourth foray to Israel in eight years.a

Andrew Tobin
Andrew Tobin

JTA Israel correspondent