Opinion | The House Is on Fire? In Israel, Just Blame It on an Arab – Haaretz

Children look on as an Israeli military plane disperses fire retardant to extinguish a fire near the Israeli kibbutz of Tzuba, outskirts of Jerusalem, August 17, 2021.
Children look on as an Israeli military plane disperses fire retardant to extinguish a fire near the Israeli kibbutz of Tzuba, outskirts of Jerusalem, August 17, 2021.Credit: REUTERS/ Ronen Zvulun

Shira Makin Aug. 23, 2021 6:47 PM

Who wants to play “Who’s to blame for the wildfires?” – an award-winning game show, in which contestants vote on suspects in the fires that destroyed thousands of acres of forest in the Jerusalem Hills last week.

Our contestants came from the worlds of politics, the media and social media networks. Each of them had their arsonist of choice, even though the experts have yet to determine the cause of the blazes.

It began with the Channel 12 and 13 television news broadcasts, the Walla! news website and the Maariv newspaper, all of which reported on the “growing assessments that the fires were set intentionally.” It got a boost when a resident of Beit Meir, one of the affected communities, declared on Army Radio that “Without a doubt it was arson.”

To these was added a sensationalistic report on Ynet about a NASA satellite image that shows, so it was claimed, that fires broke out in three different areas, at some distance from each other. That strengthened the suspicion of arson, rather than negligence, as the cause.

If there was any negligence, however, it was on the part of Ynet. Harel Dan, an expert in geographic-information systems and remote sensing, explained on Twitter that thermal and optical analysis of images of the burned-out areas show that those three locations were not the point of origin, but rather points to which the fire spread, several hours later. But who cares about facts?

All this irresponsible reporting is then cited by politicians who seem to have quietly cultivated second careers as arson investigators, enabling them to know what the authorities have yet to determine. MK Bezalel Smotrich (Religious Zionism) declared, “It’s clear that these were Arab arsonists,” while his party colleague MK Itamar Ben-Gvir said “Arson is terrorism by every measure.” The Haredi journalist Avi Grinzeig concluded that the arsonists “are certainly Bedouin.”

We’re not alone. Other countries that have been coping with forest fires have found how easy it is to blame the “other.” In Turkey, it was the Kurds; in Algeria, it was a terrorist organization funded by Israel. It’s logical.

A fire in the Jerusalem area, this week.
A fire in the Jerusalem area, this week. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Everyone wins when there is someone – usually an Arab – who can be blamed. The media win by getting more clicks, the politicians win by inciting more of the hatred that gets them votes and the authorities win by deflecting attention from their negligence.

No one bothers to point out that every year in Israel 25,000 fires break out and that every time they do human activity is blamed. But studies over decades show that in most cases fires are caused by negligence – cigarettes, barbecue grills and trash fires that were not properly extinguished. When was the last time one of the mythological gangs of arson terrorists was ever caught?

The business of imaginary villains deflects attention away from the real question that should be keeping us awake at night – not who, but why. Why were this year’s fires so big, lethal and difficult to put out? As it was explained to Haaretz reporter Nir Hasson the reason for the virulence of the recent wildfires was the presence of extremely dry vegetation in the Jerusalem Hills due to this summer’s heat waves. That turned the area into a “barrel of explosives” ready to ignite.

Those heat waves are longer, more frequent and more severe than in the past due to climate change. Israelis should be focusing on the fact that as climate change grows more severe there will be significantly more heat waves and a significantly shorter rainy season. But, it seems that it’s harder to deal with the complications of the climate crisis than it is to dabble in racism and hate, even when it’s our own house that is burning.


Satellite images show arsonists likely behind mass Jerusalem fires – YNET

Images provided to Ynet by NASA reveal the blazes were started in three distinct focal points, all at the same time, confirming previous assumptions that one of the biggest fires in recent years was due to man-made causes

Gilad Cohen | Published: 08.19.21,

Massive wildfire that raged in Jerusalem for over two days, becoming one of the biggest blazes recorded in recent years, was apparently the result of arson, new satellite images reveal.

According to the satellite imagery provided to Ynet by the United States space agency NASA, the fire started on Sunday at 3pm, at three, unconnected and far away locations, all at the same time.

מוקדי השריפות בהרי ירושלים מתוך צילומי הלוויין של נאס"א
The focal points of the massive blaze on the Jerusalem mountains
(Photo: NASA)

According to Amitai Dan, an information security researcher and intelligence analyst, the distance between each of the focal points is about four kilometers (2.4 miles). They are located near the local authorities of Beit Meir, Shoeva, Ramat Raziel and Givat Ye’arim – all of which were heavily affected by the fires.

Even before receiving the satellite images, Fire and Rescue Authority and the Jerusalem police set up a special joint team to investigate the source of the fire. The two bodies have suspected from the start that causes for the blaze were man made, although it was unclear if it was negligence or deliberate arson.

מטוס כיבוי הרקולס עובר מעל הר איתן בירושלים
Crowd looks as water bomber discharges fire extinguishing agent on wildfire in Jerusalem area
(Photo: TPS)

According to the investigative team, one of the focal points, located near Beit Meir, is a place full of brushes and thorns and regular tourists are unlikely to pass through it. The police hopes to use triangulation technology to locate any smartphones that were in the area during the onset of the fire.

On Tuesday, Fire and Rescue Authority Commissioner Dedy Simhi announced that the Jerusalem-area wildfire was finally contained after an unrelenting 52-hour battle, consisting of no less than 1,500 firefighters and 20 water bombers.

שריפה בהרי ירושלים
Wildfire rages in Jerusalem area woods on Monday evening
(Photo: Alex Kolomoisky)

The fire forced the evacuation of no less then ten communities in the area around the capital, as well as a school and a hospital.

According to the Nature and Parks Authority, the fire had consumed over 6,000 acres of land, and killed over ten thousand animals who were unable to flee the massive blaze.

יחמורים בשטח שנשרף בהרי ירושלים
Fallow deer roaming an area decimated by the Jerusalem mountains blaze
(Photo: Nature and Parks Authority)

Jerusalem District fire chief Nisim Twito assessed nature would take decades to recover from the extensive damage caused to the area’s ecological system.”

These sights are hard to watch. I’ve seen how Jerusalem District’s green lung turns black within the flames,” Twito said. “One does not have to be a great botanist to understand that it will take decades to restore what has been lost.”


Jerusalem Area Sees More and More Wildfires, Risking Irrevocable Damage to Nature – Haaretz

Wildfires in Jerusalem used to break out once in 20 or 50 years, but suddenly occur every few years due to climate changeSend in e-mailSend in e-mail

A firefighting plane works to extinguish the flames on Tuesday in the Jerusalem Hills.
A firefighting plane works to extinguish the flames on Tuesday in the Jerusalem Hills.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Nir Hasson Anshel Pfeffer Aug. 20, 2021

The Tsuba stream bed had been an impassable maze of tall thick shrubbery under the giant pine trees – until the beginning of the week. Today it’s a layer of earth so thick that our shoes sank in it, leaving footprints like astronauts on the moon. Here and there we could still see smoking embers.

A few hours after we left, the fire broke out there again but the Firefighters and Rescue Services said it remained under control.

Both sides of the stream bed are burned, east of Eitan Mountain. To the west rises Mount Tayasim, with the Air Force monument on its peak. Both mountains are almost completely burned. But the difference is great. Mount Eitan was to a large extent man-made forest, in other words, covered with pine trees. Much of Mount Tayasim is a nature reserve, preserving natural woodland. It was mostly known for its old arbutus trees with their red-flaking bark. On Wednesday the pine trees on Mount Eitan looked like blackened, unsteady electricity poles and the arbutus trees on Mount Tayasim looked like burned sculptures in a dystopian movie.

The fire had reached the outskirts of the Ramat Raziel and Givat Ye’arim communities and the Eitanim Hospital. On the edge of the slope consumed by the flames is a black-and-white wilderness and right beside it, where the flames were stopped, is a green, untouched forest. The mass mobilization of Israel’s firefighters saved the residents’ houses from disaster.

A tour along the huge fire areas in the Jerusalem hills this week finds devastated sites, beloved hiking trails that have turned into soot and ashes. Soon most of these paths will be closed for several years, to enable the forest to recover.

Blazes in the Jerusalem Hills, Sunday.
Blazes in the Jerusalem Hills, Sunday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

But the fire also uncovered the dilemmas in managing nature in Jerusalem’s hills. Usually ecologists and nature preservation activists are unfazed by seasonal fires, maintaining that it’s part of the natural occurrences in the Land of Israel for tens of thousands of years.

The Mediterranean forest is a tough system that knows how to recover from long droughts and fires. The seeds wait for the rain, the trees change the burned branches for new ones and the wildlife, from insects to deer, return to the area in search of food.

But maybe this principle was true in the old world. Today, the fire is added to other threats to open areas like road building, construction, invasive species and worse. When fires that used to break out once in 20 or 50 years suddenly occur every few years due to climate change, and meet earth and trees that have dried out in extreme heat for months with no rain, they could disrupt the balance and cause irrevocable damage to nature.

One of the problems is that the fires encourage the pine trees’ reproduction. The tree ignites and burns quickly, but its seeds are tough and survive the fire and after a winter or two a low, very dense layer of pines covers the earth.

If allowed to continue growing the burned areas will turn into overcrowded woods of weak, thin-trunked trees that will become a powder keg in future fires.

Fires in Sho'eva near Jerusalem, on Sunday.
Fires in Sho’eva near Jerusalem, on Sunday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The arbutus trees and other species of Mediterranean forest trees – oak, pistacia, Mediterranean buckthorn and others – ignite slowly, burn slowly and sometimes survive the flames thanks to their durable roots.

Amir Balaban from the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel predicts that in a few weeks, the trees will sprout new branches. However, they may find themselves in competition with the young pine trees that will move into the area.

In a fire some 25 years ago, Jewish National Fund workers had to uproot pine trees that invaded the reserve, thus enabling the arbutus trees to regain their rightful place. They will have to do it again.

Despite the encroaching development, the Jerusalem hills abound with livestock – from giant fallow deer that were released to the wild to deer, fowl, reptiles and insects. Mount Tayasim, for example, was a hub for butterfly aficionados looking for the magnificent two-tailed pasha butterfly, which lives on the arbutus trees. A solitary specimen was indeed spotted hovering over the area going down from Mount Tayasim, but its population no doubt suffered a deadly blow in the fire.

He says he met partridges, which can only fly short distances, whose legs were burned from landing on burning cinders. He saw a couple of snake eagles flying around in confusion, perhaps because they had lost their chick in the flames.

Burnt hills in Jerusalem, August 2021.
Burnt hills in Jerusalem, August 2021.Credit: Emil Salman

“It was the week in which the chicks were supposed to fly, I don’t know if they made it out of the inferno,” he says.

The scorched area looks empty of wild animals. In the unburnt part of Tsuba stream we see two partridges that got away, a starred agama lizzard crossing the path and on the Mount Tayasim slope a couple of deer are fleeing an oncoming buggy. We continue up the mountain and reenter the burned area. Balaban says the destruction wasn’t total.

“The seeds are partly resistant to fire, the ants collect them, the partridges eat them, the deer eat them, they won’t go out of circulation,” he says. Indeed, at the top of the mountain, among the burned arbutus trees, a swarm of ants emerges from a nest that was preserved, despite the fire, deep under the ashes.