Opinion

Haifa Residents Can Die of Pollution, as Long as There’s No Arab Deputy Mayor

Never mind the frenetic development of the Oil Refineries and the petrochemical industries, for the government the worst thing happening in Israel right now is the appointment of Raja Zaatry as deputy mayor

FILE Photo: An oil refinery in Haifa.
Baz Ratner

For many years, Haifa residents have been protesting conduct of the polluting petrochemical industries in their area, the criminally excessive emissions from the Oil Refineries, the pillars of fire that burn with frightening intensity, the plan to triple the refineries’ area, the private fuel terminal that’s liable to destroy the future of tourism and aviation in the city – and the ammonia tank that was ostensibly moved, but still poses a threat. And they’re still waiting for action.

Israel’s government has refused to listen. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has never tweeted a word to Haifa residents, despite their stubborn and growing protests. Reports of the illness and death rates among children and adults of all ages haven’t moved him. The fact is we haven’t heard anything from him. Not from him nor from any of the other politicians for whom Haifa’s Arabs is the only subject that will make them pay attention to the city.

To really understand Israel and the Middle East - subscribe to Haaretz

They are depicting these residents as a looming danger, as did Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan in November 2016 when Haifa went up in flames. The only thing that interested him was blaming the Arabs who allegedly started the fires – a claim that later turned out to be completely false.

Anyone who has read the papers this week might think that the worst thing happening in Israel right now is Haifa Mayor Einat Kalisch Rotem’s appointment of Raja Zaatry, a member of the Hadash party, as a deputy mayor in the city. Zaatry is evidently the type of Arab with whom one doesn’t swap jokes over hummus and tahini. He’s never expressed any great desire to be drafted into the army and hasn’t beat his breast over the sin of being an Arab.

He’s an opinionated man, and the opinions he voices may be unpleasant, even upsetting. But Raja Zaatry hasn’t caused harm or, heaven forbid, death to anyone in the city. He hasn’t damaged the health of Haifa residents or their children, he hasn’t caused cancer in babies, nor has he increased the rate of breast and lung cancer among women. He’s participated in demonstrations with unsympathetic messages, but he definitely hasn’t done anything that caused parents to bury their children and families to sit shivah for their loved ones, victims of the worst pollution in Israel.

Netanyahu, who never misses an opportunity to paint Arab Israelis as the biggest threat we face, is the one who is actually speaking with Hamas in Gaza and thereby granting the organization legitimacy. He’s also the one who kept silent – not uttering so much as a word, much less actually doing something – in the face of the threats by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah, who once described that he would use the Oil Refineries and the ammonia tank as targets and thereby cause casualties on a scale Israel has never known before. Netanyahu heard and didn’t react.

But he did raise an outcry over a municipal order to shut down polluting factories, even calling Carmel Olefins a vital industry that cannot be closed. Why is a company that serves the plastic industry so vital? Perhaps we need to look into who its owners are, and then we’ll understand.

Interior Minister Arye Dery, who has suddenly decided to speak out about what’s happening in Haifa’s new city hall, is, as we know, a righteous man, pure as the driven snow. He is seeking to turn Haifa Bay and its polluting factories into an autonomous industrial zone, so that Haifa won’t be able to enact laws that would prevent air pollution and punish those that cause it.

Haifa hasn’t interested Israel’s government for years. Granted, Netanyahu has gone to the Sammy Ofer Stadium to see soccer games, eaten shawarma at a Likud activist’s shop in the Horev Center mall and visited the submarines at Haifa’s naval base. His wife Sara, and lately also his son Yair, have paid “me and the Holocaust” visits to Haifa’s Hadar neighborhood. But neither the city of Haifa nor its residents interest them.

Netanyahu should therefore restrict his current interest in our city even further. We, the residents of Haifa, will get along with Raja Zaatry even when he becomes deputy mayor in another two-and-a-half years.

The prime minister would do better to harness his enthusiasm for the benefit of what should have been done long ago for Haifa: ending the frenetic development of the Oil Refineries and the petrochemical industries, which have made it the most polluted city in Israel, and getting rid of all its other polluting, dangerous industries. If those industries were ever hit by so much as a single missile launched by Nasrallah, in keeping with his promise, then the situation would truly become dire.

Gila Livni Zamir is a community activist who lives in Haifa.