Israel Arab leaders on Saturday accused the government of fanning hatred in Jewish-Arab relations by suggesting that Arab arson was the cause of the wave of fires in the country that started five days ago.
Leaders and political activists said Arabs are being scapegoated for the fires and predicted the government’s posture would lead to an outpouring of anti-Arab hostility.
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Speaking in Haifa on Thursday night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “We are facing the terror of arsonists” and Education Minister Naftali Bennett Tweeted that “only he to whom the land doesn’t belong is capable of burning it.”
Arab leaders say the charges are being made without evidence being produced and that even if there were individual instances of arson, there is no justification for putting the blame on the Arab minority as a whole.
“This is a government that automatically accuses Arabs, pushes us into a corner and views us as guilty while encouraging hatred of the minority,” said Zuheir Bahloul, an MK from the Zionist Union. “It’s possible theoretically that there are a few arsonists but it should be a great distance from there to a generalized accusation. But such is the way of this government.” Twenty three people have been detained on suspicion of arson or incitement to arson, police say.
“I fear that the government’s incitement against Arabs will have severe consequences,” Bahloul added. “There is a real concern this will enflame people’s feelings. If the leaders of the country incite what will average citizens say?”
Bahloul noted that during the Carmel fire five years ago, accusations were rife that it was caused by Arab arson, but that an inquiry found that the cause was negligence by youths smoking a nargila.
Of the current conflagrations, he said: “Things caught fire mainly because of the weather and problems of climate. Instead of dealing with the ecological problems and adding systems for extinguishing the fires and preparing for them, the easiest thing to say is Arab arson.”
Abed Abou Shhadeh, an activist of the Arab nationalist Balad party in Jaffa, said: “It has become the norm that every time anything goes wrong they blame the Arab population inside the Green Line. They refuse to understand what’s happening in the environment. It shows the Israeli political system isn’t able to handle these kind of crises. Instead of asking questions about the fire department and its equipment, they go into accusations against twenty percent of the population. And there is also an inability to understand that Arabs are suffering from the fires also.”
“If anyone is responsible for this crisis, it’s the Jewish population. They control the fire department and are the government and they are the ones that failed to build a proper firefighting capability, not Arabs,” he said.
“We will now see an escalation similar to the one during the last war in Gaza when there was a lot of incitement against the Arab Palestinians inside the Green Line,” he added.
Asad Ghanem, professor of Middle East history at Haifa University, said that “Netanyahu is trying to use every event to delegitimize Arabs as part of the political game in Israel and to use this to add more fire to the conflict between Arabs and Jews. There is no proof ’til now that Arabs from Israel used this action against the state and the Jewish majority.”
“A responsible prime minister would say that he’s sorry it happened, that these are a few people and that the general public in Haifa, Arabs and Jews, still care for Jewish-Arab coexistence,” Ghanem said.
Ghanem said of the fires in Haifa: “It’s terrible, this is where I grew up. I lived in Romema as a student. Haifa is the most beautiful city in the Mediterranean and one of the most beautiful in the world. It is very sad to see fire eating everything. These are days of sadness.”
“I sent an invitation to Jewish colleagues to come live with us,” he added. “I live far away from the fire. There are also beautiful moments of cooperation and sympathy besides the sad moments.”