Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council

Bushfires, arson, and Arab schadenfreude

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Israel is reeling this week from a growing number of bushfires or wildfires consuming thousands of acres of vegetation, burning houses and causing the evacuation of 75,000 residents of Haifa - Israel's third largest city.

It is believed that the initial fires were negligently or accidentally set, but as the crisis unfolded, there was an outbreak of more fires - and estimates by Israeli officials say that at least half of the fires currently burning in Israel were deliberately set.

The fires were eerily reminiscent to the Mount Carmel fires that struck northern Israel in December 2010. In that outbreak of wildfires, as in this one, the incident began with an accidental ignition later exacerbated by a spate of Arab-initiated arson attacks for "nationalistic" motives - that is to say, arson as a form of terrorism.

One Israeli expert on terror told the Jerusalem Post that arson of this sort is typically performed by individuals and is opportunistic in nature, as opposed to being organised or planned by terror groups.

Boaz Ganor, founder and executive director of the International Institute for Counter- Terrorism, told The Jerusalem Post that, "even if a portion are intentional, it is not organized.
It's not that you have a terrorist organization giving orders to their members to carry out fire attacks, though maybe in a few hours you can have groups like Hamas claiming the fires."
But "one thing is clear," Ganor said. "It is not a new form of terrorism. Arson attacks and setting fires in populated areas or forests are a well known modus operandi of terrorist groups, and not only in Israel.

The pro-Israel blog Elder of Ziyon produced numerous clippings from newspaper archives to show how arson was a common tactic employed against farms, planted forests, factories and other Jewish-owned property in the Holy Land during the Arab Riots of 1936.

Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Post and website Algemeinier, among others, ran stories which quoted a number of posts on social media by Palestinians, other Arabs and anti-Israel activists celebrating the fires.

However, some Arab voices took to social media to criticise those who were finding joy in Israel's plight. On Twitter, Israeli Arab diplomat George Deek, currently a Fulbright Scholar studying International Law at Georgetown University, took offence, singling out one Palestinian tweet that revelled in the tragedy.

Deek also took solace in the news that the Palestinian Authority had sent four fire trucks to Israel to help in relief efforts.

Ahron Shapiro