In Wake of Fire, Haifa's Famous Jewish-Arab Coexistence Threatens to Go Up in Smoke

A senior firefighter says local Arab politicians 'set fires in the morning and come to be interviewed at night'; Mohammed, a paramedic, says that while saving people from the flames, he doesn't think about accusations being made against Arabs.

A Haifa home damaged in the fire, November 2016.
Rami Shllush

Everyone on the train to Haifa late last week was talking about the fire. I couldn’t see the flames, but as we approached the city I could smell burning plastic. One young soldier decided he was Rambo and planned a one-man patrol to catch arsonists. Others in my carriage were busy trying to find homes for refugees from the fire via WhatsApp groups.

At the Carmelit funicular railway, a cleaning lady told me, “Bastards.” I asked what she meant and she clarified: “Arab bastards.”

I also remember people blaming arsonists for the 2010 Carmel forest fire. But ultimately, it turned out that that fire was started by a few careless teens, and spread because the government had economized on a fire station in the Druze village of Isfiya. In other words, the scale of that disaster wasn’t due to terror, but discrimination against Arabs. Still, we are yet to know what happened this time.

Then as now, the area around the local “war room” was filled with a few sooty firefighters and lots of spotless politicians and journalists, plus passersby who had come to see the famous people. The fire had been out by the time I arrived in 2010; this time, it was almost out.

Two elderly women with scarves protecting their faces begged a volunteer, “Get us out of here. We have to go home to get clothes. We have no warm clothes for this evening.” The volunteer told them to ask the police for help. “We did. They said the volunteers would help us,” they responded, weeping. Finally, an ultra-Orthodox rescue service volunteer stopped and offered to help them.

Given the media hysteria, it was interesting to see the lighthearted atmosphere behind the scenes. One policeman enthused at seeing Dany Cushmaro, one of Channel 2 television’s top anchors. A soldier wanted to be photographed with Cushmaro in the background.

The fire in Haifa, November 2016.
Rami Shllush

But Yossi Raz, a second-generation firefighter normally stationed in the West Bank, simply sounded exhausted. “We’ve been putting out fires with no sleep since 7 A.M. yesterday [Thursday],” he said.

Raz also helped fight the Carmel fire, and said the current effort was better organized and the firefighters better prepared.

But there have been difficult moments. He described one at a nearby gas station: “There were two crews from the district that came to extinguish [the fire] and save what was left, and then we heard two gas canisters explode. They screamed at us to retreat and extinguish it from outside.”

Mohammed Na’arani, 33, a Magen David Adom medic.
Roy Arad

Mohammed Na’arani, 33, a Magen David Adom medic, described breaking into an apartment on Einstein Street in the Romema neighborhood, together with the police, to evacuate two elderly people with breathing problems. “It was a dangerous situation,” he said.

Na’arani began volunteering for MDA 18 years ago and has been working for the ambulance service since he was 20. He said the situation now is worse than it was during the Carmel fire.

Asked how he feels when he hears ministers blaming the Arab community while he works to rescue people, he said, “When I’m working, I don’t think about it at all. Later, at home, it’s hard not to think about it. But that passes, too.”

A few local Arab dignitaries arrived to tell their story, and a senior firefighter from the area glanced at them resentfully. “They ignite fires in the morning and come to be interviewed at night,” he scowled. I asked what he meant and he responded, “Think carefully about what I said.”

Jafar Farah is the head of the Mossawa Center, an Arab advocacy group. “On the one hand, we need to take care of our families. My son studies at the university here and was evacuated,” he said. “On the other hand, we need to deal with the incessant incitement. We’ve opened buildings to take in [evacuated] families, but we’re dealing with hostility that comes from above and trickles down.”

When I repeated the senior firefighter’s comment, Farah was offended. “He should go out and work instead of sitting in the command post,” Farah said. “What would be the logic in torching a city like Haifa, which has many Arab residents? They want people to talk about Arabs and not the fact that there’s no supertanker because the money went to the settlements.”

University of Haifa students Chen, Hadar and Inbal.
Roy Arad

The voice of sanity came from three University of Haifa students, Chen, Hadar and Inbal, all around 23, who came to the war room bearing thermoses of coffee. “This is our way of doing something,” they explained. “We don’t know how to fight fires. Everyone’s happy to see us. We didn’t know there would be such demand, or we’d have made more coffee.”

I asked if they thought the fires were arson. “We’d be very hurt if it turns out that this was arson, because we all live together here terrifically,” one replied. “Haifa is a complete utopia between Jews and Arabs. We’ll wait to hear the results of the investigation.”