Easier to Blame Arson Than Climate Crisis for Wildfires in Israel

While politically motivated arson happens and incendiary devices are thrown, since 2016 not a single indictment has been filed

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A firefighting plane works to extinguish the flames in the Galilee town of Gita, on Saturday.
A firefighting plane works to extinguish the flames in the Galilee town of Gita, on Saturday. Credit: Fadi Amun
Nir Hasson
Nir Hasson

By 2030 the climate crisis will extend the wildfire season by three months in places where wildfires are common, the UN Security Risk Management System warned on Saturday.

In Israel we can already see this. Fire season starts during a searing spring that comes early or a dry autumn that extends into what was once winter. The most prominent examples from recent years are the Carmel disaster in December 2010, the various waves of fire at the end of November 2016, and the devastating fire in Moshav Mevo Modi’im in May 2019.

Conditions that promote the outbreak of fires in open spaces usually include low humidity and strong eastern winds. On a map of fire risks published by the Meteorological Service last week forecasting the situation for Saturday, almost all open spaces in the country were colored dark red indicating extreme risk of fire.

Firefighting teams trying to put out the flames in the central city of Elad, May 23, 2019.Credit: Omer Shapira

The fire and rescue commissioner issued an order prohibiting the lighting of fires in open spaces until the end of the month and large contingents of firefighters were put on alert. This preparation allowed the fires that broke out on Saturday to be contained relatively quickly.

Another risk factor that the meteorological data doesn’t take into account is the condition of the vegetation. We’ve already forgotten the heat wave in May, but it was extreme by any standard, and it was followed by a long, very hot summer.

The result is that vegetation – including trees, shrubs and grasses – in the Galilee and the Judean hills around Jerusalem have become very dangerous fuel. Under such conditions, every small fire can grow to gigantic proportions. At least until the first rains come.

There have always been cases of major fires in Israel, fuelled by extreme climate conditions, but the climate crisis has made such blazes fiercer and more frequent. Events that in the past occurred once in a few decades now happen every year or two.

“This is a growing trend,” Dr. Amir Givati, a climate expert from Tel Aviv University, told Haaretz. “The dry season stretches and the vegetation reaches its maximum dryness. We’re seeing this happen more and more in recent years,” he added.

On Saturday, sources in the fire and rescue service were quick to blame the fires on arson, hinting at politically motivated acts. These accusations are very common during and after every major fire in Israel, when all players have an interest in bringing political motivation into the picture.

People who own property that was damaged will receive compensation from the tax authorities if arson is involved; fire and police officials won’t have to provide answers to the media regarding their handling of the fire; politicians will enjoy screen time and the media will have another opportunity to tell a simple and clear story about a good old enemy.

Politically motivated arson happens and incendiary devices are thrown, but it’s important to remember: From May 2016 until today, not a single indictment has been filed, not a single person charged with politically motivated arson in any of the major fires that made headlines. Not in Mount Carmel, nor Jerusalem, nor Mevo Modiim, nor in any of the dozens of other major fires that broke out since then.

But the facts don’t hinder the purveyors of fake news. In a major fire in Jerusalem in August, for example, one media platform published “clear-cut proof” of arson – a satellite photograph that identified three points of origin.

Very quickly it became clear that the satellite had passed over the fire eight hours after it broke out and the three points were very distant from the original point where the fire began. The fact that the police investigation produced no signs of arson did not stop this narrative from spreading – the “report” appears in every Google search as absolute proof that this fire was arson.

The recent fires were apparently caused by landfills at illegal industrial areas or the negligence of farmers and hikers. But this doesn’t stop the aficionados of politically motivated arson from continuing to anticipate the next arsonists. Because it’s easier to talk about them than about the climate crisis.

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