Terrorism, at home, by fire

The first blazes may have been the result of negligence and weather conditions. But it’s subsequently become clear that something more sinister is afoot. The Israeli Arab leadership is going to have to do a good deal of soul-searching

Avi Issacharoff

Avi Issacharoff, The Times of Israel's Middle East analyst, fills the same role for Walla, the leading portal in Israel. He is also a guest commentator on many different radio shows and current affairs programs on television. Until 2012, he was a reporter and commentator on Arab affairs for the Haaretz newspaper. He also lectures on modern Palestinian history at Tel Aviv University, and is currently writing a script for an action-drama series for the Israeli satellite Television "YES." Born in Jerusalem, he graduated cum laude from Ben Gurion University with a B.A. in Middle Eastern studies and then earned his M.A. from Tel Aviv University on the same subject, also cum laude. A fluent Arabic speaker, Avi was the Middle East Affairs correspondent for Israeli Public Radio covering the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the war in Iraq and the Arab countries between the years 2003-2006. Avi directed and edited short documentary films on Israeli television programs dealing with the Middle East. In 2002 he won the "best reporter" award for the "Israel Radio” for his coverage of the second intifada. In 2004, together with Amos Harel, he wrote "The Seventh War - How we won and why we lost the war with the Palestinians." A year later the book won an award from the Institute for Strategic Studies for containing the best research on security affairs in Israel. In 2008, Issacharoff and Harel published their second book, entitled "34 Days - The Story of the Second Lebanon War," which won the same prize.

Israelis drive past a fire raging through the northern Israeli port city of Haifa on November 24, 2016. (Jack Guez/AFP)
Israelis drive past a fire raging through the northern Israeli port city of Haifa on November 24, 2016. (Jack Guez/AFP)

You don’t have to be a fire inspector to conclude that the wave of fires that has broken out nationwide is neither coincidence nor the result solely of weather conditions. The first one, two or even three blazes that broke out on Tuesday may have been a consequence of negligence — a cigarette carelessly thrown, or a bonfire not properly doused — then fueled by the winds to cause considerable damage.

But as of Wednesday, and especially Thursday, it has become clear that something more sinister is afoot. Fires are being deliberately started. And that’s the firm conclusion drawn by the professional investigators, who are not the kind of people to rush out with unfounded, dramatic proclamations to the media.

Some Israeli Arab politicians have called on their communities to act responsibly, and to take action to stop the fires. Others have resorted to their default denunciations of the ostensibly racist Israeli public, the right-wing inciters, who they assert are stirring up hostility against the Arab public with false claims of arson.

These politicians will have to do some soul searching when the flames are finally out. The facts cannot be avoided. This is an unprecedented wave of arson within sovereign Israel, apparently carried out for nationalistic motives, but not by Palestinians from the West Bank. The location of the fires within Israel’s borders presents us all with a sad and ugly new reality.

The wave of arson, the “terrorism of the fires,” is being fanned by a vicious incitement on Arabic social media, complete with calls to burn the Zionists and the Jews. Such calls are occasionally punctuated by comments opposing the arson attacks, but most of the postings are filled with hatred, anti-Semitism, and disgust for the state of Israel and the Jews.

This is anti-Semitic incitement of the worst kind. And it, in turn, is deepening a sense among the Israeli public that this is a case of organized action by nationalistic Arabs against the state of Israel. Yet pronouncements by some Israeli commentators that we now find ourselves in some kind of intifada may be premature.

As of this writing, it is not entirely clear how wide is the scale of these attacks, or even how many of the blazes are being caused by arson. It is a bitter irony, however, that the Israeli talk of an intifada plays into the hands of Hamas, which uses it to enthuse its supporters and to urge young Arabs to go out and set fires. From Thursday morning onward, Hamas has been making wide use of statements from right-wing politicians, analysts and others who have used the word intifada to try to convince young Palestinians that a new uprising is indeed erupting in front of their eyes.

The “terrorism of the fires” apparently began with a few individuals, who went into action when the first blazes broke out through negligence and weather, and the arson fed on itself after that.

From the moment that the fires began to dominate Israeli media, there were more and more arson attacks. And now others are jumping on the bandwagon. On Thursday evening, a Facebook group calling itself “the Coalition of Intifada Youths” claimed to take responsibility for the fires and called for the ongoing burning of Israel’s forests.

Whatever Hamas and other Palestinian groups might want to assert, however, what is happening in Israel began with no connection whatsoever to so-called Palestinian intifada youths.

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