Israel — In the Holy Land, a bushfire can never be just a bushfire.
What allegedly began as a bonfire that wasn’t properly put out has been latched onto by religious zealots both inside and outside Israel, who ascribe it to the wrath of God.
You’d expect that from Hamas – whose pronouncements vacillate between pragmatic diplomacy and hardcore Islamist fire and brimstone. And you’d be right.
The Hamas leader in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, called the fires a ‘strike from Allah’.
This is just days after calling a news conference to tell the world’s media that if the Palestinian people choose to recognise Israel, Hamas would respect their choice.
But Jewish religious leaders also have a history of using natural disasters to terrify their followers. And they didn’t disappoint.
One of the country’s most powerful religious figures, the Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, reportedly claimed these fires were the result of people in the area not properly observing the commandment not to work on the Sabbath.
This is the same rabbi who in 2005 blamed Hurricane Katrina on George W Bush’s support for the decision to pull Jewish settlers out of Gaza.
According to the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz, Rabbi Yosef also blamed the disaster on the lack of Torah study among Katrina’s victims, who suffered “because they have no God”.
But the religious nonsense doesn’t stop there. Far from it.
Rabbi Yosef is also the spiritual leader of the political party Shas, which is one of the main coalition groups in the current Israeli government.
His party’s leader is a man named Eli Yishai – who is also the interior minister, and therefore, responsible for Israel’s firefighting services.
Today, the Jerusalem Post is reporting that minister Eli Yishai this year rejected an offer by an evangelical Christian group to donate most fire trucks to Israel.
The International Fellowship of Christians and Jews is quoted as saying in that in the past, it’s delivered eight fire trucks to Israel under a deal made with the previous (secular) minister; but that the relationship was terminated when the Ultra-Orthodox Eli Yishai took the job, and no new trucks would be accepted. The minister’s spokesman has denied the report.
The relationship between fundamentalist Christians and Jews is an unusual, and delicate one. Evangelicals strongly support Israel, because they want to see the prophecy of the Jews returning home fulfilled, so the Day of Judgment can come.
In the fine print, however, is the caveat that if the Jews don’t convert, they will be damned for eternity. Mostly, both sides politely leave that item off the agenda when they meet.
But most importantly, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu is – to borrow a phrase from the Obama White House – ‘not going to let a good crisis go to waste’.
One of the first countries to offer and send air support was Turkey. That’s significant. Turkey and Israel – who were allies two years ago – have been barely on speaking terms after a series of diplomatic car crashes, mostly sparked by Israel’s blockade of Gaza.
It reached its lowest point in May when Israeli commandos boarded the ship Mavi Marmara bound for Gaza, and killed nine Turkish citizens.
This week, Benjamin Netanyahu went out of his way to thank Turkey – above all other nations – for sending help. He arranged a photo opportunity with the Turkish pilots. He personally called Turkey’s prime minsiter, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to thank him.
Aside from the tragic loss of life and property, if this fire has thawed the frozen friendship between Israel and its increasingly influential, democratic, Islamic neighbour… it well could be the most positive, and lasting, result of this disaster.