HAIFA, Israel — When we bought our apartment on the 10th floor of a new high-rise residential building in Tirat Carmel, less than a mile south of Israel’s port city of Haifa, we knew that the view from the north-facing balcony would be amazing.
About half a mile to the north we see Haifa, and its suburbs sprawling up the slopes of Mount Carmel.
A few hundred yards to the East we have a beautiful view of the Carmel Mountain range, sloping down to the edge of Tirat Carmel.
And best of all — just a few hundred yards to the west is the Mediterranean Sea that every evening blesses us with a stunning, bright red spectacle as the sun slowly sets into the water.
Yes, the view is amazing, but these past few days it was also frightening … we had front-row seats to what is now being called the “Arson Intifada.”
We watched as the wildfires wreaked havoc in the Haifa suburbs just 1,200 feet up the hills to our east. The flames, burning homes and trees alike, lit up the sky.
From time to time the strong, dry, nonstop winds from the east blew sparks down the hillside in our general direction, setting a few trees and bushes on fire on the mountainside. Within minutes two firefighting planes swooped in dumping seawater and red fire-retardant chemicals, extinguishing the fires and soaking the surrounding area.
Since the wind was blowing to the northwest, away from our building, we were never really in danger.
But not everyone in the area was so lucky. As the wind-driven flames got nearer to the beautiful and heavily populated hilltop suburbs, the police ordered “immediate” evacuation of more than 70,000 residents from 11 neighborhoods, including Danya, Romema and Ramat Sapir. Whole families ran to escape the fires with literally nothing but the clothes they were wearing. Police and firefighters then risked their lives to make sure no one remained, and to personally evacuate invalid residents of a retirement home, just minutes ahead of the flames.
The good news is that as of this writing, thanks to the amazing efforts of the Israeli police, firefighters and IDF soldiers, there has been no loss of life and minimum injuries.
The sad news is that many of those who evacuated returned yesterday and today only to find that their homes and all their belongings, including pictures, computers, furniture and clothing are gone.
In a preliminary report, Haifa city officials said yesterday that the fire damaged between 600 and 700 homes, leaving over 527 uninhabitable and 37 completely destroyed.
But the fires were widespread around the country. While the Carmel fire was the biggest, simultaneous blazes broke out around the country over a 48-hour period, with extensive loss of property and afforestation in Judea and Samaria, the road to Jerusalem, and the Galilee.
So how did it happen?
More than any other month, November has always been prone to fires in Israel. It’s when the strong, warm and dry wind from the east (known as the “Sharqia”) blows across the country. Since this year the rains are late, the forests and fields are bone-dry — creating perfect conditions for wildfires.
To start a deadly fire, all a terrorist has to do is set fire to some brush to the east of a forest and/or community and let the wind take over. As of right now, the police and fire departments have determined that at least 30 percent of all the fires over the past five days were started on purpose with the intent to cause as much death and destruction as possible.
It’s not yet clear if this was organized and/or whether it was incited on social media. 37 suspects have been detained on suspicion of arson or incitement (Palestinians, Israeli Arabs and one Israeli Jew).
Here is the latest summary as of this writing:
- 650 fires; at least 1/3 suspected as arson
- 2,500 firefighters involved, including 12 from the Palestinian Authority and 69 from Cyprus
- 3,000 IDF soldiers committed
- Firefighting aircraft from Israel, Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Turkey and the United States used
- 1.5 million tons of seawater and retardant dropped during 480 sorties.
- Over 560 buildings destroyed
- 1,600 people left homeless
- Zero casualties
- 133 injured (one seriously)
Will the fires continue next week? Now that might need a miracle since:
- The Sharqia wind is dying down and shifting
- The forecast for later this week calls for heavy showers all over
Will this be an ongoing new phase in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict?
I doubt it:
- 1. Israeli authorities now suspect that some of the fires may have been of criminal origin and only a few linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
- 2. The Palestinian leadership has come out strongly against arson that destroys “their” homeland.
- 3. They sent four manned fire-engines to assist.
- 4. Social media is heavily monitored here with good cooperation between Israel and the PA.
- 5. Israel has made it clear that the maximum punishment for arson without casualties is 20 years.
There still may be a few outbreaks, but I think that we’ve seen the last of this “Arson Intifada” … at least until next November.
Agree or disagree, that’s my opinion.
Lt. Col. (IDF reserve) Gil Elan is president and CEO of the Southwest Jewish Congress, and a Middle East analyst. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Upcoming briefings and SWJC events are listed at: www.swjc.org
DISCLAIMER: Opinions are the writer’s, and do not represent SWJC directors, officers or members.