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Israel’s Fires Test Emergency Services Ahead of the Next War

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Firefighters hosing down charred woodland in Haifa, November 24, 2016.
Firefighters hosing down charred woodland in Haifa, November 24, 2016. Credit: Rami Shllush

The fires raging across the country for four days now have gradually become “a strategic event.” At their peak Thursday tens of thousands of Haifa residents had to be evacuated from their homes, and hundreds of homes were seriously damaged, leaving behind destruction that will take months if not years to repair.

Live updates on fires raging across Israel

Less critical has been the 24/7 TV news, letting cabinet members show off in their battle dress. Education Minister Naftali Bennett and police chief Roni Alsheich were photographed making strange faces as they were taken around on motorbikes. Luckily, the fires haven’t cost any lives, at least not yet.

By Thursday morning there were blazes at multiple sites, raising suspicions that this was no coincidence. The fires started Tuesday, probably the combination of fierce winds and negligence by workers and hikers. The Shin Bet security service and police are investigating whether the damage over the first two days led to copycat attempts as a way to hurt Israel.

Such allegations Thursday on radio and TV seem exaggerated at this early stage of the investigation. The same goes for statements by cabinet members which softened in the evening that at least half the fires stemmed from arson.

The Palestinians have used the torching of woodlands and fields as a weapon against Israel for decades, including during the first intifada in the 1980s. Like knife attacks, these attacks are hard to foil in advance, and with arson there’s much less risk of being hurt or arrested. If these are terror attacks, the little effort has wrought much psychological and economic damage.

In any case, it’s doubtful this was a move by a terrorist network carrying out a carefully laid plan, despite Thursday's possible copycat arsons. As is customary nowadays, Palestinians on social media increased the tension, though Fatah, in an unusual move, expressed reservations about such actions and the Palestinian Authority even offered to help Israel.

A fire in a Haifa residential area, November 24, 2016.Credit: Rami Shllush

Still, the focus is not the Arabs in the West Bank but the Arabs in Israel. If it’s shown that Arab citizens of Israel committed arson, tension between Israel’s Arabs and Jews might lead to violence, as has happened in other tense periods.

Thursday’s events, especially in Haifa, reveal how vulnerable population centers in the north are, not just to war and terror but to natural disasters. Last week it emerged that the army has drawn up plans to evacuate 78,000 people from the Lebanon-border area if there’s another war with Hezbollah.

On Thursday a similar number of people were evacuated as the fires raged. In a future war, Israel may have to contend with both these threats at the same time: a massive rocket barrage from the north with great damage to residential areas and infrastructure, and terror attacks on civilians.

Thursday’s fires, mainly around Haifa, required a mobilization of the emergency services. To help the firefighters and police, the army deployed battalions of the Home Front Command, mobilized several hundred reserve soldiers and halted weekend passes at combat units and training schools.

This is a chance for the Home Front Command and other emergency services to rate their performance in a large and complex situation. It’s too early to assess the performance of local officials, and it’s definitely too early to hand out medals. But there has been a good first impression: Lessons have been drawn from the Carmel fire six years ago; the government and security forces have responded rapidly.

The next test began Thursday. Tens of thousands of people evacuated from their homes need a place to turn for help, not to mention a place to sleep. If people find themselves wandering around looking for shelter, confidence in the state’s ability to take care of the people during a bigger challenge such as a war will diminish.

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