Clean-Up, Questions as Israel Counts Costs of Devastating Fires

By Genevieve Belmaker | November 29, 2016 | 9:55pm EST
Fires rage near Haifa. (AP Photo, File)

Jerusalem ( – After a week of multiple blazes described as the worst in Israel’s history, the work of rebuilding has begun in earnest. The fires destroyed more than 10,000 acres of forest, destroyed 560 homes and damaged at least 700 others, according to information gathered from relief groups working on the ground.

The worst hit areas were in the north of Israel near the coastal city of Haifa.

Thousands of firefighters worked on the ground and in the air to fight 630 fires over a period of six days. 75,000 people were evacuated according to the Jewish National Fund.

Firefighters from the Fire and Rescue Authority were on 24-hour emergency service during the crisis. Though the Ministry of Public Security oversaw major response efforts, there was also significant help from the Arab community, including contributions by firefighters.

Much of the recovery work, which will take years, is focused on rebuilding, relocating people, and building up firefighting capacity for future fires.

There are also deep concerns that some of the fires were started deliberately, in presumably politically-motivated acts. At a special cabinet meeting in Haifa, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made it clear the government would take a firm stance.

“Whoever starts a fire, either my malice or negligence, whoever incites to arson – we will act against them with full force,” he said.

Some officials have characterized the fires as “arson attacks.” For instance, a statement from the office of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin said he had thanked Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for “his country’s assistance for Israel in during the wave of arson attacks.”

Those working in cooperation with the government have also blamed arsonists

“Approximately 10,000 acres of forests have been destroyed by fires set by arsonists,” the Jewish National Fund said in a press release.

As of Nov. 26, Israeli police had arrested 30 people in an ongoing, multi-agency operation to investigate and arrest suspects involved in starting fires across the country, according to Micky Rosenfeld, Israel’s police superintendent.

In one case, a suspect was allegedly captured on CCTV footage starting a fire.

Some social media users celebrated the fires in provocative posts, according to MEMRI, but there were also notable examples of support from the Arab community.

MEMRI reported that a number of Arab mayors and local council heads “expressed sorrow over the damage caused by the fires and offered to host families, both Jewish and Arab, who have been evacuated, as a humanitarian gesture.”

Nazareth mayor Ali Salem publicly described the events as “very saddening” and announced that city facilities and hotels were open for both Arab and Jewish citizens affected by the fires.

“We are all human, regardless of our religion,” said Salem in a Facebook post translated by MEMRI. “We all live in the same country and we must be brothers both in times of need and in times of happiness.”

Meanwhile Israel faces a major challenge of planting trees to replace those destroyed in the fires.

“For more than a century, [the Jewish National Fund] has planted and cared for 250 million trees that have made Israel the green fertile country it is,” the organization’s board chairman Daniel Atar said in a statement. “This fire set us back many years and it will take a lot of time and effort to rebuild and regrow.”  

But the Ha’aretz daily on Nov. 29 quoted the chief scientist of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA), Yehoshua Shkedy, as saying there were too many trees in Israel.

On Israel’s next tree-planting holiday, Tu Bishvat, he said, “people should go out and cut down trees. There are too many trees.”

Shkedy could not be reached for clarifying comment, but he may have been alluding to concerns that too many pine trees, which burn quickly, have been planted in Israel over the years.

Following a devastating fire in 2010, Israel’s Fire and Rescue Authority, the JNF and the INPA started to work to establish “fire breaks” in forests by strategically cutting down trees.

The fire breaks – strips of open space designed to slow the progress of fires – give firefighters extra time to reach communities. According to Ha’aretz, creating them in the Judean Hills south of Jerusalem alone would require cutting down “tens of thousands of healthy trees between communities and forests, and continuing to cut them back as they regrow.”

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