Raging wildfires tamed, Israeli reactions range from heroism to halacha

Andrew Tobin

An Israeli firefighter trekking through a forest burned by a massive forest in Haifa, Israel, Nov. 25, 2016. (Gili Yaari /Flash90)

An Israeli firefighter trekking through a forest burned by a massive forest in Haifa, Israel, Nov. 25, 2016. (Gili Yaari /Flash90)

JERUSALEM (JTA) – As wildfires that raged across this country for nearly a week came under control Sunday, Israelis took stock of their country.

The fires consumed as many as 32,000 acres of forest and brush – an area more than twice the size of Manhattan. Tens of thousands of people fled their homes, and hundreds of buildings were burned to the ground. Many dozens of people were injured. Incredibly, no one died.

In Haifa alone, a northern city that was hardest hit, 6,900 acres of land were charred and at least 60,000 residents were evacuated. On Sunday morning, 1,600 residents were still unable to return to their homes and some 500 apartments had burned to the ground, according to estimates.

An unseasonable dry stretch and high winds are believed to have ignited the fires, which security officials said then inspired alleged Arab arsonists to join in. The heroic efforts by Israeli rescue services doubtless prevented even worse devastation.

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Here are 5 ways Israelis responded to the wildfires, for better or worse.

Israeli firefighters and medics came to the rescue, with international help

To stamp out the flames required a monumental Israeli operation – and some outside assistance. About 2,000 Israeli firefighters fought back the blazes starting Tuesday, many of them working 24-hour shifts. Cyprus sent 69 firefighters, and the Palestinian Authority sent 41 firefighters and eight trucks to help.

Twenty-nine firefighting airplanes, including 15 volunteered by 10 countries from the Middle East and Europe, flew some 480 sorties. An American supertanker was rented by Israel and deployed Saturday to prevent fires from returning to the Judean Hills near Jerusalem.

“We are deeply grateful to the international community,” an Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman said Friday. “Its mobilization proves that in times of crisis we can count on many friends in this region and beyond.”

Magen David Adom reported Saturday that it had treated 133 people for fire-related injuries, including one injured seriously and three moderately. United Hatzalah, another rescue service, said Sunday it had treated 84 people, one of whom was seriously injured. Dozens more people went to hospitals on their own for injuries such as smoke inhalation.

Israelis mourned and pledged to rebuild, and politicians to help

Maya Ben Zvi was one of many Israelis who expressed resolve after watching their homes and businesses go up in smoke. Her popular family-run restaurant in the Jerusalem hills burned down Friday during a wedding party. She appeared several times on Israel television and wrote on Facebook that evening: “We’re all safe. We’re waiting to be allowed to return to what’s left, and start to rebuild. Thank you for your concern.”

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon approved Saturday evening immediate $650 payments to anyone whose homes had been destroyed or rendered uninhabitable by the fires.

At a special Cabinet meeting in Haifa Sunday, Prime Minister Netanyahu ordered ministers to cut red tapes for those affected by the fire and said he sought international cooperation against wildfires. He called the fires “more severe” than the 2010 Carmel forest fire, which led to 44 deaths. A State Comptroller report subsequently accused his government of being inadequately prepared for the fires, which he called “grave negligence.”

Security forces cracked down on alleged terrorism

Meanwhile, Israeli security forces targeted alleged arsonists, who they said were inspired by the first fires and jumped on the bandwagon starting Wednesday, according to Israel’s Channel 10. At least 35 people – most of them Palestinians but at least 10 reportedly Arab Israelis – were arrested since Thursday on suspicion of setting fires or inciting others to do so.

Some were released. A Bedouin Israeli man who was arrested last week for a Facebook post that encouraged arson written in a sarcastic tone and with the hashtag “Sarcasm, not serious” was released from jail Sunday afternoon.

Officials told Channel 10 that those characterizing the fires as a kind of “arson intifada” were exaggerating, as most of the suspects were 16-to-20-year-olds, who had no record of security offenses and were not part of any organization. Not all of the suspects necessarily had nationalistic motives.

Politicians vowed to retaliate

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 on Friday declared Friday there was “no doubt” arson was involved and blamed terrorists. At the Sunday Cabinet meeting, he pledged to “act forcefully” against arsonists and called such actions worse than “other terror attacks.” “The severity of these cases is not equal in severity to other terror attacks, because it is so powerful and it draws on the forces of nature to sow death and destruction,” he said during the meeting.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan on visits to communities damaged by fires Saturday night called for the destruction of the homes of arsonists. Israel uses the controversial method as a deterrent against Palestinian terrorists.

In separate visits to Halamish, a West Bank settlement north of Jerusalem that was completely evacuated because of a fire, 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 Wednesday night, Bennett tweeted that only “someone who this land does not belong to” could have started the fires.

Arab-Israeli leaders decried “incitement” against their community by Israeli Jewish politicians and pointed out that some of the fires were started near Arab communities.

Religious leaders blamed God

Despite the interethnic tensions, some Muslim and Jewish leaders found consensus in blaming a higher power.

Mushir al-Masri, a senior Hamas official, said this weekend the fires were punishment for a bill the Knesset is considering to limit the volume of calls to prayer at mosques in Israel.

“The fires that broke out in various places in occupied Palestine are a sign of the outrage against the Zionists from the heavens,” Mushir al-Masri said at a Gaza rally, according to The Times of Israel. “God has warned of this harsh punishment against anyone who desires to prevent the call to prayer at Al-Aqsa or attack mosques.”

Tzion Boaron, a leading Sephardi rabbi, said the fires were punishment for widespread violation of the Jewish sabbath.

“Fire only exists where the Shabbat is desecrated,” Boaron said according to the Hebrew-language Walla news website, quoting the same Talmud passage referenced by Ovadia Yosef, the late Sephardi chief rabbi of Israel, to explain the Carmel fire.

Rabbi Elyakim Levanon, a leader in Israel’s settlement movement, said Thursday that the fires were divine punishment for the government’s plans uproot West Bank settlements.

“Strong winds usually carry rain but now all is dry and flammable. It is G-d’s hand that does it. The Israeli government is delaying the approval of the Regulation Law,” Levanon wrote in a pamphlet, referring to a bill that would legalize West Bank outposts with the aim of saving one, Amona, from a High Court-ordered evacuation by year’s end.

“Until the disgrace of the threat of eviction is lifted from Amona, Ofra and elsewhere, no rain will fall.”

A helpful rise in humidity and drop in wind are expected by Tuesday, and rain is forecast for Thursday.

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