Weather, Not Arabs, Caused Israel’s Forest Fires


With one hand the government of Israel makes an effort to include the Arab citizens in Israel`s economy, and with a single swipe of the other hand, the government dashes these hopes and dramatically damages back Jewish-Arab relations.

A year ago, under Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon. the government passed Resolution 922, a multi-year, multibillion economic development plan of the Arab communities. This desperately needed measure aimed to diminish the inexcusable social and economic discrepancies between Jewish and Arab citizens.

When forest fires broke out last month in multiple locations throughout Israel, the hope Kahlon started to build evaporated as he followed in the footsteps of his boss, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Ever since his pre-election announcement that “Arabs are flocking in droves to the polling stations,” the public has been educated to blame the Arab citizens of Israel for anything that goes wrong in the country. Wishing to satisfy tens of thousands of potential voters, Netanyahu announced many times as the fires erupted that he would be glad to release compensations from substantial governmental terror and drought victims' fund of about a billion dollars.   

By publicly proclaiming that the vast majority of fires were the result of Israeli Arab terrorism, the prime minister established a racist safety net for the finance minister, providing him with the legitimacy he needed to distribute the cash. Immediately, the ministry moved with unprecedented alacrity and announced that nine towns and cities were already authorized to receive compensation based on the assumption of 'terror by arson', and more cities would soon follow. However, investigations of the 1,773 fires in November found that only four were set intentionally, and none for nationalist motives. Until now, there have been no charges made against any Israeli citizen for terrorist arson. Obviously, the vast majority of fires broke out as a result of a weeklong unusual dry weather with very strong winds, after a long dry summer.

Nevertheless, the government’s narrative ultimately implied that the Arabs set fire to the country last month in order to expel the Jews. That’s what everyone from the minister of education to the minister of science said. According to this narrative, the homes of the Jewish residents of Haifa and other northern towns were destroyed by their Arab neighbors. It is this concocted narrative that is fraying the social fabric between Arab and Jewish citizens that has taken years to build. And you won't find a government fund with billions of shekels to pay for all that must now be done to reconnect the fragile threads.

The future of the country, no matter what its political borders are, is totally dependent on the nature of the relationship between Jewish and Arab citizens. For several decades, it is primarily NGOs that have engaged in building an integrated and shared society, which includes Jews and Arabs in various fields: school education, community building, economy, sports, culture and more. The government has failed so far to systematically address these issues in the context of Jewish-Arab relations, but last month the government became responsible for inflaming these relationships. Now it is civil society activists who are fighting these fires and taking it upon themselves to re-build relationships.

It will take years to repair the searing damage the government caused by its response to the fires. Meanwhile, the burden of building a shared civil society for Arabs and Jews rests more than ever, on the shoulders of NGOs to create meaningful inclusive partnerships. For the sake of the future of this country, please join their efforts.

Shuli Dichter is executive director of Hand in Hand: Center for Jewish-Arab Education in Israel.