I am in Tel Aviv. 70 km away from the fires, I cannot even see the smoke cloud above the Haifa area, which is moving into the sea and may reach Cyprus before it comes to me. The pictures on my plasma TV are, however, very saddening. You see tens of thousands evacuated from homes and the most beautiful eco-system in Israel, the Carmel mountain forests, destroyed for at least 50-60 years. It is also tragic that more than 40 police cadets, rushed to help, found their death when their bus was caught in the fires.
What is amazing is that, for a country expecting wars and missile attacks (which also can cause big fires) at any time, the governments of Israel have, for many years, neglected — despite the State Comptroller’s repeated warnings — the fire forces and kept them understaffed and underequipped. The lack of a proper fire command is only a result of low priority in budget allocation! It is consequence of stingy neo-liberal governments’ decision (amazing in a ‘permanent war society’!) that we do not have a National Fire Fighting Authority properly financed and maintained by central government, having let fire services be financed entirely by local authorities, most of which are too poor to be able to maintain a proper fire service out of local taxes.
There is a demand here now for a public inquiry committee. In Israel we have plenty of inquiry committees — the one about the Mavi Marmara flotilla massacre has not finished its deliberations yet! It is common knowledge that inquiry committees are a ploy to let off steam, assuage public rage, let anger subside over time. They usually hold scapegoats, simple people, responsible. The chief culprits, ministries and the PM, never pay with their heads.
It is less important to find, after the fire has happened already, what went wrong in this particular case; we already know that it is a result of long-term negligence. It is most important now, when the issue is still hot, to demand that it does not happen again! The government must not prevaricate; it must be pressed to commit itself to establishing now, not in an unspecified future, a National Fire Authority properly financed by the state.
I remember reading that when the fires danced around Athens the Greeks too complained that fire brigades were underequipped. Now the Greeks have improved somewhat and can come to our rescue. Maybe in a few years’ time, as a result of this fire, we will be able to reciprocate in a third country! What is impressive, though, is that help came promptly from Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt. Even the Palestinians have sent two fire engines as a token of solidarity. Cyprus, Russia, Italy, France, the US, and others have also helped, of course, but they are friendly countries. P.M. Benjamin Netanyahu is spending a lot of time speaking on TV, so that we can watch him thank leaders of the helping countries — he even thanked Erdogan! For Netanyahu, it is an occasion to demonstrate, to us, that his anti-peace policies — bitterly criticized abroad, policies turning Israel almost into a pariah — have not caused isolation of Israel: that Israel still has many friends in time of need. To us Israelis, however, it should show that even bitter political adversaries distinguish between government policies and solidarity towards the suffering of other people.
Politically, the most worrying aspect is the accusation by the police that the fires were caused deliberately by arsonists. The finger is being pointed at Palestinian citizens of Israel. This comes in the midst of anti-Arab laws advanced by the most right-wing coalition government Israel has had for many years. A survey, published just this week, by the “Democracy Institute” has shown a majority of Israelis supporting an ethnic cleansing of Arabs in Israel. Also, according to the survey, in case of war the Jewish majority supports incarcerating Israeli Arabs in detention camps, as the Americans treated their Japanese citizens during WW2. A vast majority of Israelis do not think that Arab citizens should participate in major decisions, such as the conditions of peace. (For more on this, see “Survey: Israel Yet to Grasp Concept of Democracy” in Haaretz.)
The Carmel area is inhabited by Jews and Arabs alike, and Arab villages have been damaged as well! These unproven allegations are themselves petrol bombs lobbed by political arsonists into an already inflammatory situation between Arabs and Jews in Israel. The right in Israel is playing with fire!
Professor Avishai Ehrlich is a sociologist and a member of Hadash – The Democratic Front for Peace and Equality and the Communist Party of Israel. See, also, Riad Beidas and Rachel Leah Jones, “‘Ayn Hawd and the ‘Unrecognized Villages’: Muhammad Abu al-Hayja” (Journal of Palestine Studies 31.1, Autumn, 2001); Fadi Eyadat, “Ein Hod Residents Report Homes Bursting into Flames” (Haaretz, 4 December 2010).