Fires Not Charring Coexistence


Haifa — By the time the brush fires in this mixed Arab-Jewish city were extinguished this week, Shazar Street in the upscale Givat Oranim neighborhood had the appearance of a war zone.

Houses with collapsed attic roofs and blackened exteriors lined the street. On a hillside opposite the street’s dead end, a faint cloud of smoke hung over a slope of gray ash and singed pine trees.

“Everything was green here,” said Aharon Flexer, whose end-of-the-street duplex looked out on a swath of pine trees. Flexer, a retired radio news producer, initially didn’t think the fire would reach Shazar Street and lingered at home to snap pictures. But shortly after the police forced him to evacuate last Thursday, the blaze nearly had him surrounded in his car.

“Suddenly the fires were coming toward us from all directions. Everything was smoke and flames. There was fire in front of us and behind us. I had to drive over the street divider and into the lane for oncoming traffic,” he said, pointing to garden ornaments charred by the fire that were just a few feet from the apartment.

“It was like a horror movie out of Hollywood,” he added. “I told my wife: ‘The entire neighborhood has gone up in flames.’”

Flexer was one of tens of thousands of Israelis from Haifa and around the country who were forced to evacuate their homes last week as the wildfires neared. From the hills outside the Galilee city of Nazareth to Jewish villages in the Jerusalem hills to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, Israeli and foreign crews struggled for days to put out the blazes. But even with the international volunteers pouring in, there wasn’t enough manpower. Flexer, for example, said that for the first two hours of the blaze he saw no fire crews in the neighborhood.

“Where were the fire planes? Our fire planes!” he said.

While Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the fires a work of “arson terror” and Israeli news outlets dubbed it an “arson intifada,” Flexer isn’t so sure.

“Let’s not rush to call this an ‘arson intifada,’” he said. “The burden of proof is on those who say that.”

Flexer doesn’t offer an explanation, but many in Israel are asking whether the fires were the result of simple negligence, a stray cigarette butt or the like.

Several houses up Shazar Street, Meir Berko trudged through a mixture of broken glass and fragments of terra-cotta roof tiles to reach his destroyed second-floor attic and patio.

The veranda of his duplex home on Shazar Street looked out over the tops of green pine forests to the azure waters of the Haifa port. Last Thursday, while Israel struggled with a rash of blazes around the country fanned by dry winds, those pines helped the blaze climb up the mountainside to his home.

Out on the veranda, a white patio table was turned pink from the flame retardant sprayed by fire planes. In a blackened salon just off the veranda, a magazine was singed. In an adjoining bedroom was the cup of tea that his son left as he fled.

“Your heart breaks because the life you built is gone. You have to rebuild and start over,” Berko said.

Unlike Flexer, Berko, a 62-year-old maintenance manager for a boarding school, said he had no doubt that the fires were the result of arson.

“It’s never happened like this. The fire came from all different directions. First they started a fire near the main fire department to make it more difficult to put out. Afterward, they lit fires in all sorts of places,” he said. “It’s very simple: It’s terrorism.”

Amid declarations by Israel’s public security minister that half of the fires were the result of arson, and a Knesset member from Netanyahu’s Likud Party who said that Jewish neighborhoods were deliberately targeted, Israel’s police department has been less definitive.

Government politicians have promised to compensate homeowners for damages as if they were victims of terrorism, and vowed to strip the citizenship of political arsonists. Early on Tuesday, Israel’s tax authority released a list of cities that had been hit by arson, among them Haifa.

The police say there were some 1,800 fires around the country and that 30 people have been taken into custody on suspicion they were connected to arson. Still, no arson charges have been filed so far, and investigations are still underway. A police spokeswoman released a statement Tuesday saying that no definitive conclusions had been reached yet about the cause of the blazes. Arab Israeli leaders were angered by the accusations, and accused Netanyahu of incitement against the country’s one-fifth minority to distract attention from a corruption scandal over the purchase of submarines. At the same time, some politicians responded to celebrations on Arabic social media.

“We don’t burn our homeland. The Carmel [Forest] is ours. The trees are ours,” said Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Arab Joint List Party and a resident of Haifa, in an interview with Al Jazeera. “Stop celebrating.”

Despite the tensions across the country, Haifa residents vowed that the fires would not damage the fabric of coexistence in the city.

While railing against the government, Jafar Farah, the director of the Arab civil rights group Mossawa, said that he’s seen no indication that there’s been a rift between Jews and Arabs over the fires. “In Haifa, most Jews know Arabs and work with Arabs,” he said. “No one wants to deal with Netanyahu’s declarations. Jews still call Arab renovators.”

Not far from the hard-hit neighborhood of Romema, waiters at the Arab-run gas station/restaurant Matza recalled how residents fled to the eatery. “They were in shock,” said Suleiman Nassar, a host. “They are our clients. They’re like our family.”

Still, waiter Kamal Rajab, 35, said he was insulted by the accusations of terrorism. “It doesn’t feel good,” he said. “You can’t judge an entire population on the basis of the acts of an individual.”

On a Haifa street with burnt-out cars and fire hoses, Avner Hadad, a painter, recounted how he fled with his dog. He said he had little doubt the fires were deliberate. “They wanted to burn people. This is like going back to the Holocaust,” he said. And yet, Hadad, an art teacher, said he had a hard time believing that the perpetrators were from Haifa. He noted that a Haifa Muslim neighborhood hosted 150 soldiers in its community center.

“I don’t want Jews and Arabs to hate each other,” Hadad said. “Haifa is a symbol of coexistence.”