Many fear Israel wildfires will singe Jewish-Arab ties in Haifa

Two days after a wave of wildfires spread throughout the mixed Arab-Jewish city of Haifa and forced tens of thousands to flee, residents returned to pick through the blackened debris of their homes while pondering what had started it all.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday had called the string of brush fires “arson terror’’ and announced the arrests of suspected arsonists as the wildfires, now extinguished in Haifa, threatened other cities around the country. The blazes, which have forced Israel to rely on foreign reinforcements to get them under control, continued into a fifth day Saturday, threatening towns in the Galilee mountains in the north and the wooded hills around Jerusalem.

Once-green swaths of pine forest surrounding Haifa’s mountainside neighborhoods had been rendered a slope of ash and blackened branches. Government-run Israel Radio estimated that as many as 800 homes had been destroyed. The air was still sharp with the smell of ash and fire hoses still lined streets of stricken neighborhoods.

Now, as Haifa residents take stock of the damage, many express concern that the fires and the accusations of politically motivated arson also might tear at the threads of Jewish-Arab coexistence in the city.

“I don’t want to think it was someone from Haifa,” said Avner Hadad, a 63-year-old art teacher and sculptor who fled as flames advanced on his house Thursday. “Jews and Arab live in peace here. The city is theirs and ours. You don’t want to believe that this beautiful fabric could turn into hatred and revenge.’’

Still, he asked, how could the fire be anything but intentional? “It’s definitely arson. It’s not normal that a fire could be on the other side of the city and then reach here in a half hour. There was a goal: to burn people,” Havner said.

Like many in the city, he had no time to rescue belongings. “I didn’t have time to take anything. I fled with my dog. There was fire in the trees on both sides of the street, and you couldn’t see anything. It was unbelievable,’’ he said.

On Saturday, the fires had shifted to other locations: Israel Radio reported that five crews were fighting a blaze near the Arab city of Nazareth, and that thousands of residents had been evacuated from the Israeli settlement of Halamish in the West Bank.

Israel was relying on help from Italian, Greek and Turkish aircraft crews while Palestinian fire engines from the West Bank city of Jenin had helped douse the flames in Haifa.

A police spokesman said that 30 individuals had been arrested on suspicion of arson in recent days, but declined to give more details. Meanwhile, politicians echoed Netanyahu’s accusation that there’s “no doubt” fires were set on purpose. Anat Berko, a parliament member from the ruling Likud Party, alleged on Israel’s Channel 10 news that Haifa’s Arab neighborhoods had been deliberately spared.

Those allegations have insulted Israel’s one-fifth Arab minority, especially in the Haifa region, where Arab communities reached out to shelter evacuees. Arab community leaders complained to Israeli news outlets which, alluding to Palestinian uprisings against Israel, described the rash of fires as an “arson intifada.’’ 

“People are very angry about this incitement,’’ said Jafar Farah, the director of Mossawa, a nonprofit Arab civil rights group. “There are more than 100 fires, and to try to connect them to Arab citizens is an abuse of common sense.”

Yossi Alpher, a former peace process adviser to former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, said several factors — such as dry winds, homes built close to forests, and potential lack of preparedness — came together to create the crisis. At least some of the fires, he said, appear to be deliberate.

“If it’s arson by hostile Palestinians, it’s terrorism,’’ Alpher said. “But as far as how much of it was arson, whether this was organized terrorism, or spontaneous terrorism, what the role of incitement on the Internet, and what the role of Israeli unpreparedness, you can only speculate.’’

While many on Arabic-language social media celebrated the first fires, Alpher noted that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas had condemned the fires and sent Palestinian rescue crews to Israel. A Netanyahu spokesman said Saturday that Netanyahu called Abbas to thank him.

In the Haifa Arab neighborhood of Kbabir, located just few minutes’ drive from the fires and home to a community of Ahmadiyya Muslims, Sheikh Muhammad Sharif Odeh opened up the local auditorium center to host 150 soldiers from Israel’s Home Front Command while the fires raged.  

“We have to put out the physical fires and we also have to put out the fire of hate,’’ Odeh said. “Allah is the one sovereign and we have to look after everyone. The ethnic mosaic [in Haifa] is strong, and politicians can’t change the relations here.’’

The blazes were the most widespread in recent memory. In 2010, some 42 people were killed in a blaze in the Carmel Forest outside of Haifa, but the wildfires were limited to one area.

In the Haifa neighborhood of Romema, Meir Berko crunched over a mess of charred wood, shards of glass and terra cotta from a destroyed second floor and looked down to the azure blue of Haifa bay. In a burned-out bedroom, a glass of tea with lemon was still sitting next to the bed after having been abandoned by his son as the fire approached from the pine trees below the house.

“Your heart breaks because the life you built is gone. You have to rebuild and start over,’’ Berko said. “This is an act of terrorism. They knew about the winds. They waited for the weather. Jews would not do this. I hope it’s not Arabs from Haifa — it would undermine the coexistence here. We live in harmony.’’ 

Mitnick is a special correspondent.

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