Fighting fire

Fighting fire with fire is not a helpful metaphor, when racism and incitement can only spark the fire next time.

Fires near Jerusalem.  (photo credit: POLICE SPOKESPERSON'S UNIT)
Fires near Jerusalem.
As the smoldering embers of Israel’s massive, nationwide firestorm died out and thousands of evacuated families began returning home over the weekend, the country could take heart in the blessed fact that no one had been killed by the conflagration. The well-coordinated firefighting effort of both local and foreign crews, combined with orderly evacuations, was a reassuring sign that Israel, this time, had indeed learned from past mistakes.
The significance of this achievement can be measured by the failure of such systems not too long ago, in the Mount Carmel forest fire of December 2010, when 44 lives were lost in an abortive attempt by Prisons Service cadets to rescue inmates trapped in the Damun Prison. That fire raged for five days before being brought under control, also with the help of a fleet of firefighting planes assembled from foreign countries. One of the lessons of that disaster was that Israel did not have enough such aircraft – but even though we acquired more, this time they were not enough.
Another achievement since that time was Israel’s refining of its world famous disaster rescue capability, which was recognized recently by the World Health Organization as the No. 1 emergency medical operation in the world.
Israelis are renowned for the speed and effectiveness of our rescue efforts after earthquakes and other natural disasters anywhere in the world.
Unfortunately, we have been forced to learn such life-saving practices by confronting the suffering brought upon us by decades of terrorism. It is too early to determine whether the current disaster was the fault of nature – parched brush land waiting for promised winter rains being set on fire by perhaps a careless camper, then blown into a massive blaze by fierce winds – or was the fault, at least partially, of nationalistically motivated terrorists.
Some dozen suspected arsonists have been arrested and the investigation has only begun, but it begs credulity that more than 200 fires “just happened.” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the suspected arsonists as “terrorists” and said they would be punished severely. Interior Minister Arye Deri hinted that offenders would be stripped of their Israeli citizenship, and Netanyahu tweeted that Israel would seek to revoke the resident status of arsonists.
Talk of such draconian measures is premature and could be counterproductive, given the propensity of Arab terrorists, with little provocation, to constantly increase the deadliness of their attacks on innocent civilians. Indeed, at least one expert on terrorism, International Institute for Counter-Terrorism director Boaz Ganor, told The Jerusalem Post that describing the current events by the term “fire intifada,” as it is increasingly being dubbed by certain media, may actually attract terrorist firebugs. Things are bad enough, he suggests, without feeding the flames with “the false reasoning of revenge for [the bill that envisages] banning [amplification of] the call to prayer.”
It is well to remember that the Carmel fire was followed by a wave of arson throughout Israel and the West Bank.
And as Israel burned last week, there were few reports of fires in Jordan, the West Bank or the Gaza Strip, which are subject to the same weather conditions.
Nevertheless, it was premature for Education Minister Naftali Bennett to fan the flames of discord by labeling many of the current fires as “terrorism in every sense of the word” and saying via Twitter on Wednesday that the perpetrators are “someone to whom this land does not belong.”
In response, the country’s top Arab lawmaker, Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh, called arsonists “the enemies of us all.” He called for recognizing the fact that the land belongs to all its inhabitants. “To my regret, someone decided to exploit this dreadful situation to incite and to lash out at an entire community. Whoever loves our homeland has to focus right now on putting out the fires and helping the injured, and not on fanning hate.”
On Friday, officials said that some 600 homes had been destroyed in Haifa alone and that some fires were still burning.
Meanwhile, Arabic social media have gone viral with the hashtag label “Israel is burning,” soon the third-most trending tag on Twitter in several Arab countries.
Such mindless hostility is not confined to our neighbors, unfortunately. Also on Friday, MK Yael German appealed to Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit to take action against the notorious Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu of Safed after he issued a religious ruling permitting people to shoot Arabs caught setting fires.
Fighting fire with fire is not a helpful metaphor, when racism and incitement can only spark the fire next time.