The fire this time

December 5, 2010
Richard Kuper

The view from Haifa

Gush Shalom statement on The Fire 4 December 2010

Israel’s Carmel Fire: Racism Rears Its Ugly Head Even in Tragedy Richard Silverstein, Tikun Olam, 2 December 2010

Carmel inferno proves Israel can’t afford war with Iran Aluf Benn, Ha’aretz, 3 December 2010

gush-shalomGush Shalom, Saturday evening, December 4, 2010

Forty-eight hours after the terrible fire broke out, racists can no longer stop their frustration at not getting what they wanted – a pretext for an all-out assault against the Arab population in Israel (including the Druze).

Of course, the racists draw encouragement from the police announcement of two minors from Ussefiya being detained on suspicion of negligent behaviour which led to the fire. Who cares if it was negligence or intentional arson, who cares that Ussefiya is surrounded by the Carmel woods and was the first to be endangered when they caught fire? Just cry out “Catch the Arab!”

Still, it seems that so far these characters are not able to add a raging fire of racism and hatred to the physical fire still raging on the Caramel. The vast majority understands, if blame is to be apportioned, we should look in the right (and obvious) place: up there at the corridors of power, to those who for years heard the firefighters making dire warnings of a lack of equipment and an impending disaster – heard them, and chose to ignore the warnings and to go investing the government budgets in all sorts of other places.

tikun-olamIsrael’s Carmel Fire: Racism Rears Its Ugly Head Even in Tragedy

Richard Silverstein, 2 December 2010

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?


Carmel inferno proves Israel can’t afford war with Iran

Just like Israel’s army in the 1973 Yom Kippur war, the emergency services were wholly unprepared to handle a shock on this scale.

Aluf Benn, 3 December 2010


The enormous blaze that broke out on the Carmel will be remembered as the Yom Kippur War of the Fire and Rescue Service, who were not prepared to counter a disaster of such magnitude.

Yesterday it turned out that Israel is not prepared for war or a mass terrorist strike that would cause many casualties in the home front. The warning of the outgoing Military Intelligence Chief, Amos Yadlin, that the next war will be a lot more difficult than past experiences, and that Tel Aviv will be a front line, was not translated into the necessary preparation by the authorities assigned the protection of the civilians.

Under such circumstances, it is best for Israel not to embark on war against Iran, which will involve thousands of missiles being fired on the home front.

After the Second Lebanon War, which exposed how pathetic the civil defense system was, reports were written, exercises were held, but everything broke down under the stress of a real emergency on the Carmel range − an area that already experienced the trauma of Hezbollah missiles.

Yesterday Israel asked for help from Cyprus and Greece, and the air force traveled to France to bring fire retardants to make up for the material that had run out. In war time, it is doubtful whether Israel will be able to rely on the generosity and largess of its neighbors.

Responsibility for the home front is currently divided among three ministries: the Home Front Command and the National Emergency Authority, who are answerable to the Defense Ministry; the police, which is part of the Ministry of Public Security; and the Fire and Rescue Command, which belongs to the Interior Ministry.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who is responsible for the firemen and the head of the Fire and Rescue Services, Shimon Romah, were nowhere to be found yesterday. They are obvious candidates for losing their jobs as a result of the disaster.

Each ministry has its own bureaucratic dynamic, and ability to raise funds for equipment and human resources. The firemen are at the bottom of the pile, and have for years struggled to get more resources.

A year ago the firemen went on strike and warned that the system is far from being able to provide for defending the population. According to the firemen’s association, the international standards require one fireman for every 1,000 citizens, and in Israel the ratio is nearly one in 10,000. Over and over the firemen warned that they can’t shoulder the responsibility they are given.

Funding authorized several weeks ago was meant to head-off criticism in a State Comptroller report on the state of the fire departments.

In similar circumstance in the past, organizations that were found lacking were later bolstered with enormous resources. This is what happened to Military Intelligence and the air force following their failures during the Yom Kippur War. This will probably also happen to the Fire and Rescue Services.

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