With the wildfires tamed, Israelis seek answers

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the scene of a fire in Zichron Yaakov, in northern Israel, Nov. 23, 2016. (Emil Salman/Pool)

JERUSALEM (JTA) – As the wildfires that raged across this country for nearly a week were subdued Sunday, Israelis surveyed the devastation in search of answers.

The fires, which continued to flare Sunday evening, consumed as many as 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. Incredibly, no one died.

An Israeli firefighter treks through a forest burned by a massive forest in Haifa, Israel, Nov. 25, 2016. (Gili Yaari /Flash90)
An Israeli firefighter treks through a forest burned by a massive forest in Haifa, Israel, Nov. 25, 2016. (Gili Yaari /Flash90)

According to security officials, an unseasonable dry stretch and high winds ignited the fires, which then inspired alleged Arab arsonists to join in. Arab politicians protested against what they said was incitement against their community.

Controlling the flames required a monumental Israeli operation – and some outside assistance. About 2,000 Israeli firefighters fought the blazes starting Tuesday, 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.

Maya Ben Zvi was one of many Israelis grappling with loss. Her popular family-run restaurant in the Jerusalem hills burned down last Friday during a wedding party. On Saturday, 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.

“Don’t pressure me, give me my time. I want to thank everyone for their support and love.”

Israeli ministers pledged to help people like Ben Zvi rebuild. At a special Cabinet meeting Sunday in Haifa, a northern city hardest hit by the fires, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had ordered ministers to clear bureaucratic hurdles for those affected by the fire. The previous evening, Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon had approved immediate $650 payments to anyone whose homes had been destroyed or rendered uninhabitable by the fires.

Meanwhile, Israeli security forces targeted alleged arsonists, who 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 – were arrested since Nov. 24 on suspicion of setting fires or inciting others to do so.

Some were released, including on Sunday 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 Sunday 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 last Friday that there was “no doubt” arson was involved and blamed terrorists. At the Cabinet meeting, 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 meeting.

On Saturday night, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan on visits to communities damaged by fires called for the destruction of the homes of arsonists. Israel controversially uses the method as a deterrent against Palestinian terrorists.

In separate visits to Halamish, a West Bank settlement north of Jerusalem that was evacuated because of a fire that damaged or destroyed dozens of homes, 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 of the 110 documented fires.

A firefighter views a wildfire that broke out outside Jerusalem, Nov. 25, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A firefighter views a wildfire that broke out outside Jerusalem, Nov. 25, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

When the extent of the fires was just becoming clear on Nov. 23, Bennett had tweeted that only “someone who this land does not belong to” could have started the fires. Meanwhile, 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.

Ayman Odeh, the head of the Arab Joint List political party, reacted Nov. 24 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 Nov. 24 that the fires were God’s punishment for the government’s plans to uproot West Bank settlements, including Amona, which the High 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.”

A helpful rise in humidity and drop in wind was expected by Tuesday, and rain was forecast for Thursday.