The worst forest fires ever to have struck Israel are sweeping through the Carmel Mountains surrounding Haifa. 42 prison guard trainees died when their bus was blocked on a highway and burned, thus cutting off their escape. It is the worst loss of life in a natural disaster in Israel’s history. 17,000 have been evacuated. The University is threatened.
While it is natural for human beings facing such tragedy to look for villains and scapegoats, it’s unfortunate the direction that attention has turned. Israeli Jews have gravitated to a nasty spate of rumors blaming Palestinian Israelis for deliberately setting the fires as an act of terror and protest. This commenter in a comment thread here writes, linking to the Drudge-like Rotter internet news portal (and rumor-mill):
…According to Haifa radio today, Arab citizens in the town of Fureidis, were seen cheering the massive forrest [sic] fire occuring in the Carmel forrest [sic] that has taken the lives of at least 40
In fact, this Arab news source says that on Saturday, the residents of the town actually gathered in the soccer stadium to pray for rain. Either the earlier rumor is wrong or Fureidis is massively schizoid.
Only a day earlier, the same individual wrote this:
…During wartime they’re [Israeli Palestinians] a security risk. Most Jewish Israelies [sic] believe that they’d join the enemy and try to join the war.
And a different commenter writes about the fires:
There are rumors of arson. The rumors blame the fires on Israeli Arabs, Heuzballa’s and even Iran’s agents…Reset Bet (Channel 2, the public news channel) – A wave of arson in the north, two suspects captured.
Rotter itself fuels the flames with this:
Shabak has been called into investigate the forest fires
Since the fires began spreading throughout the north, the national police have transferred the investigation to the Shabak. Great concern that orders to set the fires originate in terror elements.
Funny thing that this alleged report hasn’t been confirmed anywhere else in the Israeli media. But now that it’s circulating in the Israel right-wing underworld of rumor and hate, the notion will have a long shelf life. All this reinforces a right-wing nationalist narrative that proclaims that the Palestinian minority is the enemy within, a force that can never be trusted. One that will side with “the enemy” during war or security crisis.
There’s only one problem with this line of thinking: it’s wrong. Dead wrong. Except for a few minor exceptions and despite massive levels of hate, mistrust and discrimination, Israeli Palestinians have shown remarkable dedication to the State, which is, after all, their country.
Let’s examine the reputable Israeli media reporting on the fires. True, one strain of reporting emanating from the National Police (who tend to follow the Shabak’s lead and be harshly anti-Arab in their views and prejudices) arouses suspicion of arson. But if you read the following carefully you’ll see that the police chief is not claiming the original fires were Arab-inspired arson, but rather that future copy cat fires might be. Also, note how bereft of evidence or proof the police “suspicion” is in the first paragraph and that the police don’t even seem to be basing these suspicions on field investigations:
Close to a dozen fires broke out across the Galilee in northern Israel on Friday, even as fire fighters from Israel and abroad fought to contain a massive wildfire which has swept across a huge swathe of the nearby Carmel region. Police suspect that the new blazes were set deliberately.
Police Commissioner David Cohen earlier Friday warned local police chiefs to prepare for a spate of fires that had been purposely started. Police fear that some would take advantage of the current crisis to start more fires in the region.
Further fueling the rumors were reports that two residents of a Druze village were arrested on suspicion of setting the fires. But the suspects were quickly released:
Two male residents of Daliat al-Carmel were released on Friday after having earlier been arrested on the suspicion that they had attempted to ignite fires in the Carmel hills region.
After being questioned by police, it became clear that the two were not responsible for the acts they were suspected of.
The second strain of reporting seems to derive from fire department sources who are on the scene or in contact with those who are. This strain rejects claims of arson completely:
The initial inquiry conducted by fire investigators has pointed to negligence, not arson, as the cause of the wildfire.
According to the investigation, the wildfire started at one location west of Ussifiya. It is believed that household trash and tires that had been discarded in the area caught on fire and the fire spread. Investigators are looking into what exactly caused the trash to ignite.
While it’s too early to know definitively what the final determination will be, I feel safe saying that it’s likely that Israeli racism fueled by great pain and suffering has induced Jews to level yet another form of blood libel against their fellow Palestinian citizens.
The wild exaggeration hasn’t been limited to blaming Israeli Palestinians either. Ynetnews blares this headline:
Hezbollah Overjoyed by Fire
The body of the report says no such thing. It quotes the following Hezbollah statement:
The great Carmel fire embarrassed Israel’s firefighting capabilities and proved its almost complete incompetence,” a report by Hezbollah’s al-Manar network said. The Lebanese station said the poor performance came despite Israeli claims regarding the IDF Home Front’s full readiness to cope with any emergency and face the implications of an all-out war.
Even most Israelis would agree with these sentiments. So where’s the joy?
I might add that among the 42 Israelis who died during the fires were three Druze and one Ethiopian. Instead of falling prey to ethnic division and scapegoating, why can’t Israelis focus on the fact they all (Jewish and Palestinian) have lost something deep and painful with this natural disaster? Why not acknowledge that the PA sent its firefighters to battle the blaze and Turkey too offered help? Instead of finger-pointing at the weakest link in society and blaming them, why don’t Israelis turn their wrath where it belongs–toward an inept government more attuned to building expensive high-tech walls, Iron Dome anti-missile defenses, and buying F-35 jets as toys for the IAF; when it could’ve bought or leased a single air tanker that could’ve attacked this fire when it was at its origins, instead of having to wait for nations like Cyprus and Greece to send their equipment after the conflagration went out of control.
I write this post in the context of a disturbing survey by the Israel Democracy Institute baring the deep racism inherent in Israel society toward the Palestinian minority. In the ways in which Israeli Jews have contemplated this disaster, the bad news of this poll have been borne out.
UPDATE: An up to the minute report from an Israeli reader confirms that the police are now agreeing that the fire was caused by negligence. What are the odds that any Israeli politician or police officer will ever apologize to Palestinian citizens for promoting these rumors?