Israel Fires Spark War of Words Between Arab, Jewish Lawmakers

While some right-wing politicians label the fires across Israel as acts of terror, others urge calm and called not to discriminate against an entire population.

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Firefighters working in Haifa, November 24, 2016.
Firefighters working in Haifa, November 24, 2016.Credit: Ariel Schalit/AP

As fires raged across parts of Israel for a third consecutive day, the blaze was quick to spread to the political sphere on Thursday. While some Jewish politicians were quick to label the fires acts of terrorism, criticizing Israel's Arab population, others called not to taint entire communities.

Alluding to Israel's Arab community, Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the leader of the hard-right Habayit Hayhudi party, wrote on Facebook that "only those who that doesn’t belong to is capable of burning it."

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier on Thursday said that “every fire that was the result of arson or incitement to arson is terror in every way and we’ll treat it as such," adding that "anyone who tries to burn parts of the State of Israel will be severely punished.” 

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked sang a similar tune, saying that Israel “will fight uncompromisingly against the arson terror." Citing a new law against terrorism, Shaked said that "inciters will not evade justice and Israel will treat them as inciters to terror.”

As of Thursday, however, it remained unclear whether the fires were indeed the result of arson. Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said that efforts made over the past days were "not investigations but life-saving efforts – and so we need to remember that these are initial evaluations." Four Arabs were arrested under suspicion of arson but were later released after it was proved that they weren't involved with the fires. In a subsequent interview with Channel 10, Erdan said eight individuals had been arrested and that the arson was suspected of being politically motivated.

Arab lawmakers rebuffed claims that some fires had been started deliberately. 

MK Yousef Jabareen (Joint List) rejected “with disgust” such accusations and called on Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich and Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman to “behave responsibly, halting the wave of incitement they are feeding. Every plot of land in this homeland is in our heart, and we deplore the damage to it and its people."

“These accusations are arrogant and irresponsible and constitute dangerous and wild incitement against the Arab public,” Jabareen continued. “There were fires in the Arab city of Umm al-Fahm and in Wadi Ara as well, and the fire in Haifa doesn’t distinguish between Jews and Arabs. We now need a unifying discourse instead of sowing hatred and incitement.”

Joint List Chairman Ayman Odeh echoed his colleague’s comments and called on politicians to stop inciting against the Arab community.

“None of us know exactly what is going on,” he said. “I don’t know if the arsonists are Arab or not. If that is the case, they should be severely punished.

“We’re all in this to save this beautiful place – I’m from Haifa and the Carmel, and the main thing now is to save it,” he said. “It’s not the time for other things.

Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav spoke with moderation. "Now we must link arms, no matter if we are Jews or Arabs: Haifa and the Carmel belong to all of us. We should stop inciting and join hands, whatever our nationality. Sane Arabs and Jews know that I’m talking from the heart. Enough with the incitement, pure and simple. We need to be responsible now.”

Construction and Housing Minister Yoav Galant rejected Odeh’s comments. “At this time, all citizens should show solidarity and not behave as victims,” Galant said.

“Security forces are combating the raging fires on behalf of all citizens. While Haifa – a city in which Jewish and Arab neighborhoods live in exemplary coexistence – is fighting the flames, MK Odeh would do well to lower the flames and join our common effort to combat extremism, dealing with the fires rather than with theorizing about incitement.”