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2016-12-02 digital edition

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December 2, 2016  RSS feed
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Text: T T T

With the wildfires tamed, Israelis seek answers

By ANDREW TOBIN JTA news service

A firefighter viewing a wildfire that broke out outside Jerusalem, Nov. 25. 
Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90) A firefighter viewing a wildfire that broke out outside Jerusalem, Nov. 25. Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90) JERUSALEM – As the wildfires that raged across this country for nearly a week were subdued Nov. 27, Israelis surveyed the devastation in search of answers.

The fires 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, hundreds of buildings burned to the ground or were damaged and dozens of people were injured. Incredibly no one was killed.

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 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, 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.

An Israeli firefighter trekking through a forest burned by a massive fire in Haifa. 
Photo by Gili Yaari /Flash90 An Israeli firefighter trekking through a forest burned by a massive fire in Haifa. Photo by Gili Yaari /Flash90 Maya Ben Zvi was one of many Israelis grappling with loss. Her popular family-run restaurant in the Jerusalem hills burned down during a wedding party. The day afterward, 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 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 approved immediate $650 payments to anyone whose homes had been destroyed or rendered uninhabitable.

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 on suspicion of setting fires or inciting others to do so.

Some were released, including a Bedouin-Israeli man who was locked up 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 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 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.”

“It is so powerful and it draws on the forces of nature to sow death and destruction,” the prime minister said at the meeting.

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.

When the extent of the fires was just becoming clear, 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 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.”

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.

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