Israel in Flames

An arson wave reveals stark truths about a country and its neighbors.

From Tuesday to Sunday in Israel, over 30,000 acres of natural forests and brush were destroyed in wildfires. The fires also spread to, or were ignited in, cities, towns, and villages. About 180 people were injured, some moderately or seriously. 

Sixty thousand residents of Haifa, Israel’s third largest city, had to be evacuated on Thursday as about a dozen neighborhoods were threatened by fire. Around 500 homes in the city were reported to be completely destroyed, with over 1700 Haifa residents unable to return to their homes.

There were also raging fires in the coastal town of Zikhron Yaakov, the Jerusalem area, small West Bank communities, and others.

As a rescue official in the West Bank community of Neve Tzuf described it:

When we entered the town, it looked like a bomb had gone off…. A two-storey building was burning and the one behind it caught fire in a domino effect. Gas tanks were blowing up and all you could see everywhere you looked was fire—giant balls of fire skipping from building to building, to the cars, eating up everything and destroying it. I haven’t seen anything like that in a long time….

By the weekend, security forces had reportedly arrested about 40 people suspected of arson or incitement to arson. Most were Israeli Arabs; a smaller number were West Bank Palestinians.

Although Israeli authorities claimed that a sizable proportion of the fires had been caused by weather conditions of dryness and strong winds, the Jerusalem Post noted that “there were few reports of fires in Jordan, the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, which are subject to the same weather conditions.” 

The logical inference is that the number of arson cases was higher than the authorities—perhaps because of an inability to catch all the perpetrators—were acknowledging.  

Israeli authorities also claimed that the arsonists were mostly “lone wolf” Palestinian youths, similar to those who engaged in a wave of stabbing and car-ramming attacks that began over a year ago. 

Veteran Israeli columnist Dan Margalit, however, cast doubt on the lone-wolf assumption. As he pointed out:

organizing arson requires more time and planning than an individual’s spontaneous decision to take a knife from his kitchen and set out to murder; and…more than one terrorist takes part in the act and the materials are not as readily available.

If they managed to get organized so quickly that it was only a matter of hours between incidents, we must suspect, or at least look into, the possibility that this may have been prepared in advance with briefings from a central official….

Although, as of Sunday evening, there were no reports of a “guiding hand” behind the arsons, it was certainly too soon to rule out the possibility. 

During the arson wave—still continuing Sunday evening—Israel has received firefighting assistance from various countries including the United States, Canada, Russia, Greece, Turkey, France, and Spain, as well as Jordan, Egypt, and the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority.

Yet, encouraging as it may be that some of the help came from Arab quarters, in much of the Arab world the arson wave inspired wild joy.

On Twitter in several Arab countries, the third-most trending hashtag was #Israelisburning. Many saw the fires as divine punishment for a proposed Israeli law that would ban mosques from using loudspeakers for prayer calls. Such laws already exist in India, Nigeria, and Egypt.

Yet a Kuwaiti cleric with nearly 8.6 million Twitter followers tweeted: “Allah will burn their hearts,” and added: “He will burn their homes, their money and their cemeteries, because of what they did to the faithful.”

A senior Dubai security official tweeted: “Israel banned the muezzin and caught on fire. Blessed be God.”

Israel’s Ynetnews reported:

Hamas social media pages have posted videos of songs rejoicing about the fires, like one called “Catching Fire.” 

Some people posted their hopes that the fires would reach strategic facilities in Israel, like the Haifa Chemicals plants, gas storage facilities across the country, and IDF bases that have large arms depots. 

One wrote, “All of Israel’s neighbors must aid it—I suggest they send planes filled with gasoline and rain it down on the burning areas. I want to inhale the smell of barbecue from the Zionists.” 

Three points are worth making here.

To about two million mostly hostile Palestinians in the West Bank must be added about a million Israeli Arab citizens—some of whom are loyal, some ambivalent, some hostile and, as the arson wave reveals, potentially dangerous. To those threats must be added terrorist enclaves on Israel’s southern (Hamas), northern (Hizballah), and northeastern (ISIS and others) borders, as well as a strategic threat from Iran. The only reason there is not a constant stream of disaster stories from Israel is that its security and intelligence services work round the clock to preserve its existence. True friends of Israel take account of this reality and do not badger it to take actions it views as making itself even more vulnerable. 

Second, while Israel’s security and economic ties with Arab states are constantly deepening, prompting even a reality-attuned leader like Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to speak optimistically of Israel’s growing acceptance in the region, the widespread reaction to the arson wave reveals the ongoing intensity of hatred at least on the popular level. Neither the hatred of the arsonists themselves nor that of their many millions of supporters makes the slightest distinction between the West Bank, where Israel is allegedly an occupying power, and pre-1967 Israel. Haifa, which has a sizable Arab minority, is seen by many as a success story of Jewish-Arab coexistence. Very few in the Arab world, however, appear to take heart from it, instead celebrating the spectacle of thousands of people fleeing their smoldering homes. 

Third, as Israeli commentators note, burning thousands of acres of a land, and rejoicing at the burning, would appear incompatible with love of the land. Israelis see themselves as specially attached to the Land of Israel, and as having cultivated it and brought it to a miraculous level of productivity and beauty after millennia of neglect. They believe, though, that they will have to keep living by the gun as long as so many others glorify destruction and death.

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