Amid flames and suspicions in Israel, acts of jewish-Arab cooperation

Amid flames and suspicions in Israel, acts of jewish-Arab cooperation

29 November 2016

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Israel — NATAF, Israel — When Rama’s Kitchen, an earthy and much-loved restaurant in the small Israeli village of Nataf, was burned last week by one of the wildfires that raged in the area, the last civilians who stayed to fight the blaze were two Palestinian brothers from Qatana, a village nearby in the occupied West Bank.

Now, the Israeli police are investigating the possibility that the fire may have been started by a firebomb thrown from Qatana over the Israeli security fence. Fanned by strong, dry winds from the east, the fire was soon rampaging through the wooded hills around Nataf.

The flames have been mostly extinguished, but passions in Israel were still smoldering on Monday, mainly over indications that at least some of the fires resulted from politically motivated arson. A police spokesman said that 23 suspects were in detention in connection with the fires — 18 Arab citizens of Israel and five Palestinians from the West Bank.

Right-wing politicians in Israel have called for the government to demolish the homes of any convicted Palestinian “pyro-terrorists” and to strip any Arab-Israeli arsonists of their citizenship.

But the fires sweeping across the countryside also brought an outpouring of Jewish-Arab cooperation. Arab members of the Israeli Parliament offered their homes to Jewish evacuees from fire-affected areas; local Arab community centers and restaurants opened their doors to those fleeing the flames. The gestures exposed the contradictions that run through the fragile patchwork of Israeli-Palestinian coexistence.

The Palestinian brothers who fought the restaurant fire, Raji and Wael Houshiyyeh, have worked for years in Nataf, which is 12 miles west of Jerusalem. Their daily commute from Qatana, across a valley rich with natural springs, takes them through an Israeli checkpoint. As the fire consumed the restaurant on Friday afternoon, they were joined by firefighters, including four teams from the Palestinian Authority who came to help the Israelis.

“Here, people treat each other like human beings, not Arabs or Jews,” said Wael Houshiyyeh, 43, who started working in Nataf with his father when he was 14. He helped to build Rama’s Kitchen more than 20 years ago, and he has done maintenance work there ever since. On Monday, he was back in Nataf again, renovating a house.

“I love this place,” Mr. Houshiyyeh said, “I grew up with their kids.” He said he hoped the wildfire was not ignited by a firebomb from his village.

A devastating fire in Haifa, a port city in northern Israel, where about 10 percent of the 280,000 residents are Arab, left more than 70 buildings and 500 apartments uninhabitable. It, too, may have been arson: Micky Rosenfeld, a police spokesman, said investigators were “looking at six different locations that set on fire simultaneously,” which he said was unlikely to be coincidental.

Haifa’s Jewish mayor, Yona Yahav, broadcast a message of moderation. “Now we must link arms, no matter if we are Jews or Arabs,” he said, adding that Haifa and its surroundings “belong to all of us.”

Other brush fires under investigation include those that destroyed or damaged dozens of homes in Zichron Yaakov, south of Haifa, and burned 18 houses to the ground in the Jewish settlement of Halamish in the West Bank.

After a fire swept through Beit Meir, another village in the Jerusalem hills, the police announced the arrest of two Palestinian suspects who were fleeing the scene. The Israeli news media later reported that the suspects turned out to be thieves, and the fire may have been caused by flares used by the security forces who were pursuing them.

Extreme weather has made Israel especially vulnerable to wildfires this year. Many were probably caused by negligence and not arson. But some of the Israeli victims, especially those without homeowners’ insurance, have a clear interest in seeing the fires declared as acts of terrorism because then the Israeli state would compensate them for their losses.

Though Israel’s Jewish majority and its Arab minority, who make up one-fifth of the population, generally get along peacefully, tensions have grown in recent years. Israel’s right-wing politicians have become more prominent, and at times more provocative, while Arab citizens have grown more assertive in expressing their Palestinian national identity, as well as solidarity with the Palestinians of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Since the fires broke out last Tuesday, Israel’s Jews and Arabs have been pointing fingers at each other.

“It is apparent there was some degree of arson,” said Edan Ring, the director of public affairs for Sikkuy, a Jewish-Arab organization that promotes civic equality with headquarters in Haifa and Jerusalem. But right-wing politicians have been exploiting the situation, he said, adding, “Today, every day is like an election, with voting in the form of shares and likes and headlines.”

Referring to the cooperation displayed during the fires, he said, “On the ground, things looked really different.”

In Abu Gosh, an Arab Israeli village near Nataf, a restaurateur named Thabet Abu Gosh, 75, sat in the Caravan Inn owned by his family. The village has maintained good Arab-Jewish relations since before the state of Israel was established in 1948. As Mr. Abu Gosh spoke, a well-known retired Israeli general, Yossi Ben Hanan, walked in to the Caravan, and Mr. Abu Gosh got up to greet him warmly. Like the other restaurants in the village, the Caravan delivered free food to Jewish evacuees from the fires as they gathered in the nearby community center.

“If there was arson, perhaps it was some hooligans,” Mr. Abu Gosh said. “We are interested in them being caught and dealt the heaviest possible punishment.”

The charred ruins of Rama’s Kitchen in Nataf have become a national symbol. President Reuven Rivlin and other officials have visited the site. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had telephoned the owners, Rama and Uzi Ben Zvi. “I think that we all know how much love they have invested in this, their life’s work,” Mr. Netanyahu said at the start of a weekly cabinet meeting.

Tomer Ziv, 37, the restaurant’s chef, stood in the ruins on Monday, telephoning staff members. Only the brick oven and part of the kitchen had survived the fire.

Mr. Ziv was in the restaurant on Friday afternoon, when the fire was approaching. A wedding party was just winding down. He said the Houshiyyeh brothers had risked their lives, working with firefighters to keep the flames from igniting an underground gas storage tank between the restaurant and the owners’ house next door.

“It was like combat,” Mr. Ziv said.

Mr. Houshiyyeh said his father had built the house, which was saved from the inferno.

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