As wildfires tore through large swathes of the land a week or so ago, some Israeli politicians used the disaster as an opportunity to fan the flames of hatred against Palestinians by calling it a “fire intifada”. Foreign firefighters from many countries came to Israel’s assistance, but it seems that those politicians had different priorities; they rushed to judgement in newspaper columns and appeared to show scant concern for the tens of thousands forced to flee their homes.
This was a time for politicians to demonstrate leadership and calm the people; to reassure the wider world that everything was being done to protect and save life. Legend has it that the reckless Roman emperor Nero fiddled as a blaze raged through ancient Rome for seven nights in 64 AD; while Benjamin Netanyahu picked up neither lyre nor violin, he did seize the moment to orchestrate a burning campaign of hatred against the Palestinians.
Never one to miss such an opportunity, the Israeli prime minister blamed “terror” as courageous firefighters from Italy, Croatia, Russia, Cyprus, Turkey and even the neighbouring Palestinian Authority risked their lives to help their exhausted Israeli colleagues. Words of support instead of hateful rhetoric should have been the order of the day, but from Netanyahu there was very little.
Now, though, as Israelis are beginning to count the true cost of the forest fires, the words and motives of Netanyahu and his cabal are being scrutinised more closely. The Israeli leader and other ministers — including Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and Culture Minister Miri Regev — pledged to revoke the residency rights of those found guilty of arson. This is a threat normally reserved for Arab Israelis, so it was clear where Tel Aviv was pointing the finger of blame.
Of course, Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman typically went one step further and, along with Education Minister Naftali Bennett, called for the expansion of the illegal West Bank settlements in response to the alleged wave of terror.
However, it appears that some of the claims about terrorism have been wildly premature. Forensic investigators as well as fire and security experts believe that not all of the fires were started deliberately. “In most areas you won’t find many things that say whether it was arson,” explained Ran Shelef, the Fire and Rescue Authority’s chief investigator.
Another senior investigator, Herzl Aharon, said that the authorities still don’t know anything. “I wish I had a direction,” he told Israel’s Channel Two. “I go to a place and get an insight — and then I go to another place and everything changes. This is what you call an illusion of the topography, the bedlam of the mountainous region, and it is very difficult to investigate.”
Of the 35 people initially arrested on suspicion of arson or inciting others to commit arson, fewer than 10 remain in custody; only two suspected arsonists have been charged, one of whom insists that he was simply burning rubbish.
In the meantime, Netanyahu’s unsubstantiated blame has drawn blunt criticism from a former Israeli intelligence officer and the head of terrorist research at the Institute for National Security Studies. “The habit of inflaming the atmosphere by politicians is playing into the hands of the terrorists,” said Yoram Schweitzer. “A basic principle of fighting terrorism is to differentiate between the community which is allegedly or potentially supportive of such acts and the terrorists themselves. This is the first principle that was breached.”
Representing a coalition of Arab political parties called the Joint List, Ayman Odeh called on Netanyahu to be investigated for incitement for accusing Palestinians of deliberately starting the fires. Odeh said that he would formally request a probe by the attorney general. “Everyone knows that there wasn’t a wave of terrorism, that there wasn’t a ‘fire intifada,’” he said, citing the headline phrase used by some Israeli media following Netanyahu’s outburst.
While police officials say they suspect arson in 29 of the 39 major fires, and in about one-third of the 90 blazes investigated, they also admit there are no suspects in the largest fires, nor clear proof of arson.
As the investigators continue to rake through the embers of the wildfires, it’s worth remembering that the Palestinian Authority sent its own team of firefighters to help the Israelis. In other words, Palestinians set aside their differences and risked their lives to help those who enforce a brutal military occupation on their land. They don’t expect gratitude from the likes of Netanyahu for their humanitarian efforts as the forest fires raged. Even so, the international community might want to consider whether they’d like to help the Palestinians firefighters in Gaza when Netanyahu next orders a blitz of blazes caused by hellfire missiles and bombs on the tiny coastal enclave.
As the firefighters from Ramallah showed, when it comes to putting out fires and extinguishing the flames of hatred, the Palestinians lead from the front.
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