Fires in Haifa, November 24, 2016.
(photo credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI)
Three weeks after fires engulfed large parts of Haifa and accusations of Arab-led arson attacks circulated in the media, Arabs and Jews sat at the Humus Abu Marwan restaurant in downtown Haifa showing little concern for ethnic or religious differences.
“I think some of the fires were caused by people who don’t like Jews, but everything is exaggerated in politics and the media,” said Gilad Kaufman, 37, an engineering student at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology. “[Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu is very good at speaking with emotion. But this is only to separate the nations.”
Over the last weekend, residents from Haifa and around country descended upon the city for its second annual Arab food festival, only weeks after Israel’s fire disaster and the resulting arson accusations strained Arab-Jewish relations.
Speaking to a group of journalists on Thursday, Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav said he rarely talks about coexistence, because Haifa is a “sane” city where coexistence is the norm. He said he was not interested if there were any acts of arson or not.
“I never asked and I don’t care,” he said, adding, “Nobody dares to point a finger at the local Palestinian population.”
“We live in a community where Muslim, Christian and Jews live together, so regardless if Arabs actually did it or not, nothing is going to change,” Haifa Mayor’s Office spokesman Or Doron told The Jerusalem Post. “We will still live together.”
Sheikh Rashad Abu Alhaija of Haifa’s Great Mosque said if an Israeli-Arab did commit arson, he should be “punished to the fullest extent.” However, he said, the arson accusations were leveled against the Israeli-Arab community “because it is easier for people to blame the Arabs than to take responsibility for the fires.”
In Haifa, during the fires, Netanyahu said, “We are facing the terrorism of arsonists.” At the same time, Education Minister Naftali Bennett tweeted, “Only he to whom the land doesn’t belong is capable of burning it.” Meanwhile, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan claimed that almost 50% of the fires were caused by arson.
Police are still investigating a number of fires as possible arson, including in Haifa. However, only three indictments against six Israeli-Arabs have been filed for involvement in minor fires, not the major blazes that caused extensive damage to Haifa and Zichron Ya’acov.
From November 19-28, there were approximately 2,600 brush fires and 1,800 urban fires throughout the country. The overwhelming majority were minor, needing only one firetruck to extinguish them.
Haifa’s dense vegetation led to massive fires that overtook parts of the city. “I don’t know any other city where the nature so strongly penetrates the urban fabric,” Haifa city engineer Ariel Waterman told a group of reporters as he looked over the burnt hillside of the Romema neighborhood. The fire led to over 500 apartments being damaged and displaced 1,700 people.
The city hopes to prevent the next fire disaster by changing vegetation and instituting new regulations.
Wooden awnings, which proved to be highly flammable, will be banned in certain areas, and many of Haifa’s famous trees will be uprooted.
“We are taking down trees that are too close to buildings,” Waterman said, adding that trees should be 15 meters away from structures. “It sounds easy, but in peacetime when there is no fire, people don’t like taking trees down.”
One building that was effected was a Romema neighborhood kindergarten, one of 52 kindergartens evacuated during the fire.
“A lot of children have regressed, it was psychologically damaging,” Shifra Anteby, head of Haifa Municipality kindergarten department, said while standing in the burnt rubble of the classroom. “What do we tell them, how do we speak about [the fire]?” A group of Israeli-Arab construction workers who were working to rebuild the kindergarten said not much has changed for them since the fire.
“There’s always extremists on both sides, maybe it’s around 10%,” Maisara Abed al Nabi said. “But they will always be there. We will continue as normal.”