HAIFA — Gilad Mulyan hurried back to his Haifa home on Thursday afternoon, hoping to salvage whatever he could from the wildfire sweeping through his neighborhood. He arrived to find Palestinian construction workers on his roof. At great risk to their lives, and in defiance of police orders, the men, who had come from the West Bank to add a few floors to his building, helped to douse the flames with water, beating back the inferno mere meters from the building’s cooking gas canisters.
“When I hear politicians turning the terrible fire [into something] between Jews and Arabs, I’m really pissed off, ” Mulyan told The Times of Israel on Sunday from the roof of his apartment building. The fat line of ash and charred trees that transected the hilly Romema neighborhood below looked like a dried river of lava. The blaze came so close, the leaves of trees easily reachable from the roof were baked crispy.
The day Mulyan nearly lost his home, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared from within Haifa that the wildfires, which destroyed over 1,000 of homes and forced tens of thousands to flee the city, were “arson terror.”
Though it has yet to be proven that any fires — since the spate started on Tuesday, over 110 were recorded across central and northern Israel — were started by Arabs with nationalistic motives, mainstream Israeli media quickly announced the advent of an “arson intifada.” In Haifa, meanwhile, authorities still haven’t determined whether any of the fires were caused by arson.
As of Sunday night, police said they suspect 30-40 of the 90 fires they have investigated thus far were started by arsonists. However, police also said they have not yet found any evidence that the arson was coordinated nationally or planned in advance. Some 50 people were questioned in connection with the fires and 24 were arrested, 18 of them Israeli Arabs. Only two, from the Israeli Arab towns of Umm al-Fahm and Deir Hanna in northern Israel, confessed to arson so far.
But within Haifa, which is considered a beacon of urban co-existence in Israel, and where around 11 percent of the 250,000 residents are Arab, all who spoke to The Times of Israel said they were sure that if arsonists were involved in the flames, they weren’t natives of the city. No son or daughter of Haifa — Arab or Jew — they contended, could burn their own beloved city.
Mulyan, who sends his kids to the Hebrew-Arabic Hand In Hand school network, said the Arab members of his school community have been feeling “under attack” since the fires. He noted that he had witnessed strong incitement against Arabs on Facebook.
On Saturday, police arrested a man from Kiryat Ono, near Tel Aviv, for calling for “revenge arson attacks” against Arabs. He was released the next day under unspecified restrictions.
“We should be patient and not blame people. What happened here happened to both of us. We dealt with the physical fire, and now we need to deal with the fire of hate,” Mulyan said.
Living across the hall from Mulyan, and firmly rooted on the other end of the political spectrum, is Joseph Goren, 39, the owner of a high-tech company and a self-described “rational Likud” voter.
Goren said he was “sure” that no one from Haifa was responsible for the fires in the city, because residents were better educated and had less hate toward one another. Rather, he believes a Muslim Israeli from outside his city was likely responsible.
Goren, who said he was a “real leftist” during the optimistic peace process years of the 1990s but became disillusioned after the failure of talks, blamed mainstream Muslim institutions that he said “stand behind” the youngsters he believes are responsible for the act.
The kindergarten Goren’s children attend, located within eyeshot of his apartment, was “burned to the ground” on Thursday after it was evacuated. Further off in the distance, Goren pointed to the Fliman Hospital, which specializes in geriatric care, where paramedics were forced to evacuate hundreds of intubated patients.
The suspected arsonists, he said, aimed to “burn people alive.”
“Deportation, death penalty, whatever — the punishment needs to be severe,” he said.
Netanyahu has threatened to strip the residence status of arsonists, while Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan has called for demolishing their homes, as is sometimes done to Palestinians accused of terrorism against Israelis.
Rawnak Natour, co-director of the Sikkuy organization, which works to promote equality between Jews and Arabs in Israel, said that in cases of nationalistically motivated arsonist the “terrorist should be punished.”
But, she argued, the more important issue wasn’t whether the few culprits were Arabs from Haifa or not, but rather that “Mr. Netanyahu and other ministers used [the fires] to incite against 20 percent of the population.”
“While Arabs are fighting the fire the same way as Jews, we find ourselves accused of being the cause… It’s irresponsible to toss around allegations without any evidence,” she said. “The government took a theoretical question and changed it into a fact.”
Erez Geller, the regional paramedic supervisor for Magen David Adom in the Carmel district of Haifa, said he felt the speed at which fires erupted in Haifa and across Israel indicated some were man-made.
“It’s too much of a coincidence. Almost simultaneously, you had fires coming from so many places… And it didn’t happen in one day, it happened in one hour, and then two hours later there was another fire, then another fire… I’ve been working here many years, and it’s the first time I’ve seen something like this.”
During an interview in his office, Geller’s phone rang nonstop. While the fires have been doused, the paramedics’ work in Haifa is far from completed.
Despite suspecting arson, Geller was adamant that Jewish-Arab ties wouldn’t be damaged by the flames.
“In Magen David Adom, we have Arabs, we have Christians, we have Muslims. We work shoulder to shoulder… We know each other,” he said. “If you talk about the future, Haifa is a strong city. We have a strong relationship between all the communities…We’ve known worse days. One of the terrorists in the suicide bombings during the Second Intifada came from one of our neighborhoods. Still, relationships are good here and I believe they will stay strong.”
Lian Najami, 22, who grew up in the mixed Jewish-Arab neighborhood of Ein Hayam, spoke to The Times of Israel while driving around the bustling port city.
“It’s our home. It’s our city. It’s my hometown…I always brag about how beautiful the city is because of the green forest in the middle of the neighborhood,” said Najami, pointing out the old Arabic stone homes that dotted one street.
Najami, who grew up in a liberal Muslim family, lectures abroad on what she calls Israel’s “shared existence,” battling what she feels are misconceptions about the Jewish state and the Arab community’s place within it.
“Relationships here are not damaged. There is a very clear understanding that we are living together…it is our home. We are all living here under the same umbrella,” she said.
She acknowledges, however, that relations between Jews and Arabs in Haifa haven’t always been perfect. For example, there were calls to boycott Arab Israelis after a wave of Palestinian stabbing attacks began in Israel last October. There was even a website that listed every Arab-owned store in Haifa. But Arab stores weren’t boycotted, and she called those who advocated such action a “vocal minority.”
“It all comes down to this idea: If people really get to know each other, not just meet them once a week [but] live with them — once you have that, you care about the friendship, you care more about the person as a human being, regardless of their ethnicity,” she said.
Meanwhile down the hill, in the the unmarred alleyways of the Arab neighborhood Wadi Nisnas, which was adorned with early-bird Christmas decorations, residents insisted there was no new “arson intifada.”
The one Christian shopkeeper who kept his store open on Sunday was adamant that relations between Jews and Arabs would emerge unharmed by the recent blazes. The man, who asked to remain anonymous, blamed the media for “fudging the story.”
“We have no problem here,” he said. “We’ve had coexistence here, and it will always be like that.”