The House Is on Fire? In Israel, Just Blame It on an Arab

Shira Makin
Shira Makin
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Children look on as an Israeli military plane disperses fire retardant to extinguish a fire near the Israeli kibbutz of Tzuba, outskirts of Jerusalem, August 17, 2021.
Shira Makin
Shira Makin

Who wants to play “Who’s to blame for the wildfires?” – an award-winning game show, in which contestants vote on suspects in the fires that destroyed thousands of acres of forest in the Jerusalem Hills last week.

Our contestants came from the worlds of politics, the media and social media networks. Each of them had their arsonist of choice, even though the experts have yet to determine the cause of the blazes.

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It began with the Channel 12 and 13 television news broadcasts, the Walla! news website and the Maariv newspaper, all of which reported on the “growing assessments that the fires were set intentionally.” It got a boost when a resident of Beit Meir, one of the affected communities, declared on Army Radio that “Without a doubt it was arson.”

To these was added a sensationalistic report on Ynet about a NASA satellite image that shows, so it was claimed, that fires broke out in three different areas, at some distance from each other. That strengthened the suspicion of arson, rather than negligence, as the cause.

If there was any negligence, however, it was on the part of Ynet. Harel Dan, an expert in geographic-information systems and remote sensing, explained on Twitter that thermal and optical analysis of images of the burned-out areas show that those three locations were not the point of origin, but rather points to which the fire spread, several hours later. But who cares about facts?

All this irresponsible reporting is then cited by politicians who seem to have quietly cultivated second careers as arson investigators, enabling them to know what the authorities have yet to determine. MK Bezalel Smotrich (Religious Zionism) declared, “It’s clear that these were Arab arsonists,” while his party colleague MK Itamar Ben-Gvir said “Arson is terrorism by every measure.” The Haredi journalist Avi Grinzeig concluded that the arsonists “are certainly Bedouin.”

We’re not alone. Other countries that have been coping with forest fires have found how easy it is to blame the “other.” In Turkey, it was the Kurds; in Algeria, it was a terrorist organization funded by Israel. It’s logical.

Everyone wins when there is someone – usually an Arab – who can be blamed. The media win by getting more clicks, the politicians win by inciting more of the hatred that gets them votes and the authorities win by deflecting attention from their negligence.

No one bothers to point out that every year in Israel 25,000 fires break out and that every time they do human activity is blamed. But studies over decades show that in most cases fires are caused by negligence – cigarettes, barbecue grills and trash fires that were not properly extinguished. When was the last time one of the mythological gangs of arson terrorists was ever caught?

The business of imaginary villains deflects attention away from the real question that should be keeping us awake at night – not who, but why. Why were this year’s fires so big, lethal and difficult to put out? As it was explained to Haaretz reporter Nir Hasson the reason for the virulence of the recent wildfires was the presence of extremely dry vegetation in the Jerusalem Hills due to this summer’s heat waves. That turned the area into a “barrel of explosives” ready to ignite.

Those heat waves are longer, more frequent and more severe than in the past due to climate change. Israelis should be focusing on the fact that as climate change grows more severe there will be significantly more heat waves and a significantly shorter rainy season. But, it seems that it’s harder to deal with the complications of the climate crisis than it is to dabble in racism and hate, even when it’s our own house that is burning.

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