Fires raged across Israel and the occupied West Bank last month, causing serious damage to property and destroying thousands of acres of natural forests. Immediately, Israeli government officials and members of the Israeli media began blaming Palestinians for setting the fires, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu describing them as an “arson intifada” and the police positing that they were lit on “nationalistic grounds.” Education Minister Naftali Bennett took the fires as an opportunity to deny Palestinian claims to their homeland, stating that “only those to whom this land does not belong could burn it.”
While there was celebration amongst some Arab social media users, there has still yet to be any evidence that arson or terrorism were to blame. Several Palestinians arrested on suspicion of arson have been released without charge and Israeli police have since denied claims that the fires were attempted terrorism. Two 17-year-old Palestinian citizens of Israel were indicted for starting a large fire in the Galilee. However, the judge stated that fires seemed to be a prank rather than politically motivated arson.
Many Palestinians reacted with surprise at the accusations of politically motivated arson. One Palestinian told Haaretz reporter Amira Hass that it would be “madness” for a Palestinian to start such fires, stating “it’s our trees there, our dead who are buried in the graveyards there, the water cisterns dug by our grandfathers. We’ll return there, so why destroy it?” Echoing a similar sentiment, a Fatah statement read “what is being burnt now is our trees and our historic homeland.”
It seems therefore that this rush to blame Palestinians for the fires were a result of opportunism and racism rather than hard evidence. Firstly, these accusations functioned to distract from Netanyahu and his government’s failure to learn lessons from 2010’s devastating Carmel fires. Having sunk huge funds into a fleet of firefighting planes that according to Haaretz “did more harm than good,” Netanyahu needed a scapegoat to obscure his government’s shortcomings and the subsequent need for massive international assistance.
Furthermore, the decision to label the fires a result of arson has fiscal consequences. Rather than coming from the state budget, relief funds would be sourced from a fund dedicated to compensating homeowners, businesses and local governments for acts of war or terrorism. Therefore, homeowners with and without insurance would be entitled to equal levels of relief.
Underpinning this compulsion to blame Palestinians for the fires is pervasive anti-Palestinian racism. Netanyahu’s scapgoating falls into a pattern of incitement by the prime minister aimed at delegitimizing Palestinian national aspirations. Naftali Bennett, who favors annexing the West Bank, has a similar pattern of hateful rhetoric.
Even when trying to help, the Palestinians are met with official disdain. The Palestinian Authority formally offered to assist the Israeli and international effort to bring the fires under control. Netanyahu accepted this offer. However, when Israeli Embassy in the United States expressed gratitude to numerous foreign countries for assistance in an infographic, it relegated the PA to a footnote.
The rush of Israel’s most prominent politicians to blame Palestinians for starting fires without a shred of evidence follows a pattern of hateful incitement by Israeli leaders and unscrupulously obscures the government’s incompetence. Overall, this entire episode is illustrative of the hatred and suspicion of Arabs and Palestinians that pervades Israeli society.