Firefighters cannot remember a summer like this in many years. For the past few weeks, the country has been burning. But this story is not about the blazes, according to Channel 2 News reporter Shay Gal, rather it is about the blame that is immediately flung into the air, usually even before the fires subside. As renowned Journalist Ed Murrow put it: A great many people think they are thinking when they are merely rearranging their prejudices.
Two Intifadas and continuous hostilities have solidified the idea in Israelis’ minds. It’s not as if there aren’t cases of arson based on nationalistic motives, but those take place mainly in areas along the line of demarcation between Israel proper and the disputed territories. Still and all, every time a wave of fires sweeps through our country’s forests, we are quick to suspect that the Intifada has returned.
The fire that broke out in June at Kibbutz Maale Hachamisha served as a good example of this worrisome phenomenon. There it happened because of a Molotov cocktail that was thrown from a neighboring village – in other words – arson. Minutes later, a fire was lit in Motza as well. The immediate assumption was that the arsonist continued directly there. However, in Motza it was actually workers at an archeological site that went out to lunch and left the fire burning, and so that story was gone.
Last Wednesday, there was a fire on a mountain adjacent to the Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital. The first suspicion here was also arson. The following day, Gal returned to the mountain with arson investigator Moshe Elazri of the Fire Department. “We discovered signs of beer bottles here,” he relates. People from the village even related that they had seen people making a barbecue in the area.
As the fire investigator was talking, the wind that had caused the coals to burn began to blow and the fire broke out again. Everything started again right in front of their eyes. The picture becomes clear; a command center was established and fire trucks rushed to the area. Then, inevitably, a report came over the wire: “Listen, there are some individuals here that are starting fires all over the place.”
“I don’t know what they’re talking about here,” said Elazri and thereby clarified the absurdity in the flammable situation.
And, as the command center was preparing to alert helicopters to search for suspects of an arson that had never been committed, Elazri tried to calm everybody down. “Eli, I was just at the scene where the fire started again – no arsonists.” A short while later, the fire was extinguished; for the prejudice to be extinguished will take more time.
On the way to the next destination, Elazri looked at a tree trunk that was still burning, a clue that the fire could once again break out. From there, they continued to another, heavy-topped tree, the kind that started the fire in the Carmel forest tragedy. Officials back then suspected two children who were playing in the area.
“We’re referring to a 75 square dunam area that was burnt – almost half the area of the forest,” explains Dr. Leah Wittenberg that has been researching the effects of the Carmel fire for years. She estimates that it will take 40-50 years before the forest will get back to its original, green state. The recovery process, surprisingly enough, has not even begun.
According to Israel Police statistics, 500 new arson files have been opened since the beginning of the year. At least 400 suspects have been arrested. However, be aware, nationalistically motivated arsons constitute less than one per cent of the incidents, or about 10 incidents. The rest of the fires are either criminal arson or simple negligence.