Were claims of Israel’s ‘arson intifada’ overblown?

As wildfires threatened Israel last week, rhetoric linking arson to terrorism heated up. 

For about a week, fires across the country burned huge swaths of land, destroyed hundreds of homes and businesses, and forced tens of thousands of people to flee. Dozens were injured, though few seriously.

As the blazes raged, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said several times that they were set by arsonists and amounted to acts of terrorism. He and other ministers in his government pledged to work to revoke the residency of those found guilty — a threat typically reserved for Arab Israelis.

“Every fire caused by arson, or by incitement to arson, is terrorism,” Netanyahu told reporters last month at a briefing in Haifa, a northern city where tens of thousands were evacuated from their homes. “Anyone who tries to burn parts of the State of Israel will be punished severely.”

Netanyahu was not alone in apparently singling out Israel’s Arab residents and citizens. Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and Culture Minister Miri Regev both threatened last month to revoke the citizenship of arsonists. Education Minister Naftali Bennett described the blazes as “terrorism in every sense of the word.” And Bennett and Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman called for expanding West Bank settlements in response to the supposed terror wave.

But now that the fires have been stamped out by the heroic efforts of Israeli and foreign firefighters and rain has finally come, it appears that some of the claims about terrorism may have been premature. Amid ongoing investigations, fire and security officials investigating the blazes have been much more cautious about drawing conclusions than Netanyahu and his government partners.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, at microphone, surrounded by security and government officials, speaking at a briefing in Haifa about the fires raging in the northern city and elsewhere in Israel on Nov. 24. Photo by Amos Ben Gershom/Israeli Government Press Office

“In most areas you won’t find many things that say whether it was arson,” Ran Shelef, the Fire and Rescue Authority’s chief investigator, told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday.

A day earlier, the authority’s Northern District investigator Herzl Aharon said, according to Israel’s Channel 2: “We still don’t know anything. I wish I had a direction. I go to a place and get an insight — and then I go to another place and everything changes. This is what you call a illusion of the topography, the bedlam of the mountainous region, and it is very difficult to investigate.”

At least 35 people were arrested on suspicion of committing arson or inciting others to do so, mostly Palestinians and the rest Arab Israelis. But by Saturday, only 10 remained in custody for suspected arson, with the rest released unconditionally, Channel 2 reported.

Only two suspects have been indicted, and one claims he was just burning garbage. And though no one doubts there was some arson involved, motives remain unclear.

“It’s still too early to rule nationalistic motives,” police officials told Channel 10 on Tuesday. “Yes, there were incidents of arson, but nationalistic motives are far from being definitively concluded.”

In the absence of proof, some have criticized the rush to judgment.

“The habit of inflaming the atmosphere by politicians is playing into the hands of the terrorists,” Yoram Schweitzer, a former Israeli intelligence official and the head of terrorist research at the Institute for National Security Studies think tank, told JTA. “A basic principle of fighting terrorism is to differentiate between the community who is allegedly or potentially supportive of such acts and the terrorists themselves.

“This is the first principle that was breached,” he added.

On Monday, Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint List, a coalition of Arab political parties, said he would seek to have Netanyahu investigated for incitement for seeming to accuse Arab Israelis of deliberately setting fires. Odeh said he would formally request a probe by the attorney general.

“Everyone knows that there wasn’t a wave of terrorism, there wasn’t a ‘fire intifada,'” he said, using a term some Israeli media outlets had put in their headlines.

Police officials have said they suspect arson in 29 of the 39 major fires, and in about one-third of the 90 total fires they investigated. There are no suspects in the large fires in Haifa and Zichron Yaakov, nor clear proof of arson.

One Arab Israeli who was arrested and held for three days on suspicion of inciting arson was released after police admitted they had mistranslated his sarcastic Facebook post. The tweet was meant to condemn those supporting arson on social media and ended with the hashtag “Sarcastic, not serious.”

An Israeli firefighter trekking through a forest burned by a massive fire in Haifa on Nov. 25. Photo by Gili Yaari /Flash90

Orit Perlov, who researches Arab social media at the Institute for National Security Studies, said self-critical humor became the dominant tone on Arab social media as the fires in Israel raged. Initially, she said, there was widespread rejoicing and talk of divine punishment under the Arabic hashtag “Israel is burning.”

But especially after the Palestinian Authority sent firefighting help and some Arabs publicly condemned the arsonists, people began asking questions like, “If it’s coming from God, what did we do wrong to explain what’s happening in our states?” she said.

Schweitzer, the terrorism researcher, said it was noteworthy that the arson had flamed out despite the incendiary comments by Israeli politicians. Among other things, he said, that was because Arab Israelis are “part of the victims and part of Israeli society.”

“Instead of calming the population, which is the task of leaders, Israeli politicians did the reverse and claimed an ‘arson intifada,'” he said. “That’s just not wise, to put it very mildly.”

Firefighters gain ground over devastating California blaze

Firefighters in the foothills of central California have made significant gains against a blaze that has killed at least two people and destroyed scores of homes in a devastating start to the state's wildfire season, authorities said on Monday.

By Sunday night, crews had carved containment lines around 40 percent of the fire's perimeter, up from 10 percent earlier in the day, and evacuation orders were lifted on Monday for two communities previously threatened.

But officials reported a higher toll of property losses on Monday, with about 250 structures reduced to rubble, 50 more than estimated the previous day, and 75 buildings damaged.

As of Monday morning, the so-called Erskine Fire has blackened more than 45,000 acres of drought-parched brush and grass on the fringes of Lake Isabella in Kern County, California, about 110 miles (180 km) north of Los Angeles.

The blaze erupted Thursday afternoon and spread quickly through several communities south of the lake, driven by high winds, as it roared largely unchecked for two days and forced hundreds of residents from their homes.

At the fire's peak, some 2,500 homes were threatened by flames.

On Friday, at least two people were confirmed to have been killed in the blaze, and Kern County fire authorities warned that the death toll could rise as investigators comb through the rubble of homes that went up in flames.

The cause of the fire was under investigation.

More than 2,000 personnel have been assigned to the blaze, the biggest and most destructive of nine large wildfires burning up and down the state, from the Klamath National Forest near Oregon to desert scrubland close to the Mexico border. Most of those were at least 60 percent contained as of Monday.

A blistering heat wave that has baked much of California in abnormally high temperatures ranging from the upper 90s to the triple digits has been a major factor contributing to the conflagrations.

While California's wildfire season officially began in May, the rash of blazes since last week signaled the state's first widespread outbreak of intense, deadly fire activity this year.

Daniel Berlant, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said the state has already experienced some 2,400 wildfires, small and large, since January. They burned a total of 99,000 acres (400 square kms).

Winter and spring rainfalls helped ease drought conditions but also helped spur growth of grasses and brush that have since dried out, providing more potential fuel for wildfires, he said.

Israeli official claims country has fewest fire fatalities in world

Despite some high-profile cases of arson in the past year, Israel is the world’s safest country when it comes to fire-related deaths, its fire commissioner said.

In remarks to a Knesset committee Tuesday, Israeli Fire and Rescue Services Commissioner Shahar Ayalon reported that the number of fire fatalities has been steadily declining since 2010, when over 70 Israelis were killed in fires, the Times of Israel reported.

Ayalon said there were nine deaths from fire in 2015.

“We are today the safest country in the world in terms of casualties from fire,” he said, crediting the hundreds of millions of dollars Israel has invested in firefighting services in the aftermath of the 2010 Carmel Forest fire.

“Our [average] response time was 14 minutes in 2010, and it went down to six minutes in 2015,” he said, according to the Times of Israel.

According to WorldLifeExpectancy.com, a website that uses World Health Organization data to rank death rates by country, Israel’s fire fatality rate in 2014 was 0.38 per 100,000 people, placing it 153rd out of 172 countries (the higher the rank number, the lower the rate of fire fatalities), or in the best 20. According to that ranking, the five countries with the best fire safety records are Luxembourg (0.1 per 100,000), Malta, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Italy.

The five countries with the worst fire safety records were Nigeria (21.13), Burundi, Uganda, Mozambique and Somalia.

With a rate of 0.75 fire deaths per 100,000, the United States ranked considerably behind Israel, in 133rd.

Hess Kramer campers evacuated due to fire concerns

Ventura County Star is reporting tonight at 10:18 p.m.: Roadrunner Shuttle donated two charter buses to pick up the 165 poeple at Camp Hess Kramer on Yerba Buena Road.

Other reports say campers are being transported to Malibu High School as part of a mandatory precautionary evacuation related to the possible spread of the Ventura County Springs Fire.

We felt so safe there

Maybe it’s just me, but it feels like mortality is in the air.

“We had a view, trees, a yard and neighbors,” retired school bus driver Linda Pogacnik, 63, told a Los Angeles Times reporter about her Sylmar home, crying uncontrollably. “We felt so safe there. It was a perfect place for an old retired woman.”

I’m sorry, but I don’t like thinking of 63 as old. I also don’t like thinking that “we felt so safe there” is as relevant to me as it is to a mobile home community destroyed by the Sayre fire. Does that mean I’m in denial?

A couple of days before the fires began, at 10 in the morning, you would have found me in my office on the floor beneath my desk, holding on to it for a surprisingly long three minutes during the regionwide drill meant to prepare us for a magnitude 7.8 earthquake. Afterward, my colleagues and I spent a half hour calmly trying to understand what it would be like to sleep in parks for two weeks along with thousands of our neighbors, and to experience 10,000 aftershocks during the year that followed, and to live in a city without electricity or transportation or any of the other urban services we usually don’t think about depending on.

The evening of the day of the drill, I went to my book club. The book this month was “The Teammates,” by David Halberstam, the story of Red Sox veterans Dom DiMaggio, 84, and Johnny Pesky, 82, driving down from Massachusetts to visit their dying teammate, Ted Williams, for the last time. We book club members, men in our 50s and 60s, usually love a rousing conversation about the text at hand, but that night the conversation was about politics, food, the fine points of Yiddish curse words — anything but the Halberstam book. Afterward, on e-mail, we acknowledged the reason why: our discomfort at confronting our own forthcoming decrepitude and demise.

The week before, I had lunch with a college friend, a baby boomer like me, who’s been battling a chronic disease since its onset at age 30. Some years since then have been bad; others, more endurable. Right now, he’s doing OK.

I asked him how he had come to handle the fragility of his well-being and the uncertainty that his illness has plagued him with. His answer: “Everything is a percentage. You have an X percent chance of a recurrence over the next Y years. You have a Z percent chance of being alive from today until whenever. The percentages are never zero and never a hundred. And when they’re lopsided, you never know what side of them you’ll be on. It’s all about the odds.” He paused, had a sip of espresso, and went on. “It’s all about the odds for everyone, isn’t it? Being sick just makes you realize it more.”

A week later, while the wildfires raged, I went to Thousand Oaks to give a talk along with

Tzedakah With Toys

When 5-year-old Ariela Weintraub learned about the recent Southern California fires during a family dinner discussion, she was worried. The Santa Monica resident asked her mother, Susan Weintraub, "Mommy, do you think the children who lived in those burning houses lost their toys?"

Her mother told her yes, and the youngster ran to her room and returned with a big white teddy bear. To her parents’ surprise and delight, Ariela announced that she wanted to donate her cherished stuffed animal to a child who lost his or her own toys in the fires.

When Susan Weintraub told her daughter’s story to Rabbi Karmi Gross, the principal of Maimonides Academy in Los Angeles, which is attended by Ariela and her older sister, the 5-year-old’s generosity inspired a school toy drive for local children affected by the fires.

"When we think communitywide, we usually think of the Jewish community," Gross said. "This seemed like the perfect opportunity to make a point to our students that we have to sometimes look past our family. The needs of the general community have to be a genuine concern to us."

On Nov. 12, the American Red Cross stopped by Maimonides and picked up the boxes of treasured stuffed animals, lunch boxes, art activities and board games. The toys will be distributed to local homeless shelters and specifically given to children who lost their possessions in the tragedy.

"I just thought they might’ve lost their favorite toys in the fire," Ariela said. "I think they’ll be happy when they get new ones."

To donate to the American Red Cross Disaster Relief Fund, visit www.redcross.org or call (800) 435-7669.