Wave of arsons in Israel raises fears, debate of ‘Fire Intifada’
Palestinians weigh fallout of weapon
HEBRON, WEST BANK | Abu Rayyan, a 36-yearold nurse at Hebron’s main public hospital, treated severe lacerations to the chest of an elderly woman bitten last weekend by a military patrol dog while an Israel Defense Forces platoon searched a home for weapons.
“We couldn’t just treat her wounds and let her go,” he said. “The bites are so bad she has had to remain here under observation.”
Mr. Rayyan said he is fed up with the security coordination between the Israeli military and the Palestinian Authority, which allows such searches.
Joint anti-terror operations between IDF and the security forces of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have escalated in the wake of the Third Intifada — an Arabic term for “shaking off” that has been applied for three decades by Palestinian nationalists to describe their periodic violent uprisings
against Israeli rule.
The latest wave of attacks started last year with stabbings of Israelis and has morphed over the past month into an outbreak of fires near towns in Israel and Jewish settlements in the West Bank.
At their peak, the thousands of brush fires forced more than 100,000 Israelis to evacuate, and more than 500 families’ homes were destroyed or damaged. Authorities characterized 250 of the arson attacks as major incidents as the conflagration spread from the northern city of Haifa, which has a large Arab population, to a belt along the security barrier between Israel and the Palestinian territories in the West Bank.
Israeli police said two Arab citizens of Israel confessed to committing arson, and security forces have detained at least a dozen Palestinians suspected of setting fires for “nationalistic reasons.”
Still, analysts are split over whether the arson cases truly represent the advent of an intifada.
“Intifadas vary. They have changing components and trajectories,” said Meir Elran, a former IDF deputy director of military intelligence and a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
Mr. Elran doubts the blazes can be considered a sign of a resurgent Palestinian uprising. “It is hard to define a common denominator except as resistance of Palestinian population against continuation of the occupation,” he said.
Mr. Rayyan, the nurse, had few doubts, though.
“We live for the Third Intifada,” he said. “The fires show how Israel is a weak country and is not prepared for [the fires].”
Many Palestinians celebrated the conflagrations with the Twitter hashtag “#Israelisburning.”
The Lebanese chapter of Mr. Abbas’ Fatah movement claimed Allah was punishing the Israelis for the proposed “muezzin” draft legislation in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, aimed at restricting the decibel levels of five Muslim daily calls to prayer.
The ‘Fire Intifada’
Al-Aqsa TV, a channel run by the Islamist Hamas movement, inflated its estimates of the size of acreage engulfed in flames, represented arson as a Palestinian weapon and described the disaster as the “Fire Intifada.”
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to link the blazes to Palestinian terrorism.
“Every fire that was caused by arson, or incitement to arson, is terrorism by all accounts,” Mr. Netanyahu declared at the onset of one conflagration that included 2,600 brush fires and 1,800 urban fires, according to Israeli fire and rescue authorities.
No West Bank Palestinians have been publicly charged with arson, and Israel has accepted an offer by the Palestinian Authority to send four ground teams to combat the fires.
The flames have subsided for now, and some Israelis say the whole notion of a “Fire Intifada” has been overblown, with partisans on both sides having an interest in exaggerating the scope of the damage.
“In most areas, you won’t find many things that say whether it was arson,” Ran Shelef, the Israeli Fire and Rescue Authority’s chief investigator, told The Jerusalem Post this week.
Even so, Palestinians are fiercely debating the best course to shake off their domination by Israel and the utility of Fatah’s “peaceful resistance” versus a new intifada that includes individual acts such as arson and stabbings.
The debate played out publicly at the recent Fatah conference in Ramallah. Mr. Abbas, 81, told delegates that the movement needed to focus the struggle against Israel in the international diplomatic arena. This week, he dispatched a delegation to lobby President Obama not to use the U.S. veto to scuttle a U.N. Security Council resolution critical of Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank and in east Jerusalem.
But others advocate for a more violent course, especially with the incoming Trump administration seen as far more sympathetic to Mr. Netanyahu and his government than Mr. Obama.
“The PA must adopt the armed resistance as a way to liberate Palestine,” Hamas co-founder Mahmoud al-Zahar told supporters at a Gaza rally last week, adding that diplomacy has gotten Palestinians nowhere.
Mr. Elran, the former Israeli intelligence officer, said violence is inevitable as long as the diplomatic process fails to achieve results for the Palestinians.
“Whoever suggests that Palestinian people will be kept under occupation forever is wrong,” he said. “They will look to get out of it however they can, and we have to understand that a military means is a necessarily part of the toolkit — especially if diplomatic attempts go nowhere, and sadly, this will probably the case.”
Abd Al-Rahman Nimer, a 22-year-old Palestinian who served jail time after clashing with Israeli troops in the West Bank, agrees.
“We need an intifada that shows the Israelis that we are able to resist them even with the poor means the Palestinians have,” he said.
But his neighbor, Abu Ahmed, a 48-year-old Hebron grocery store owner, said Palestinians have more to lose than gain by intensifying the armed struggle. He is certain that violence will result only in harsh retribution and more Israeli settlement construction on the hills of the West Bank — especially after the next U.S. president takes office next month.
Donald Trump “will affect the Palestinians so badly,” said Mr. Ahmed. He noted that the president-elect already has made clear his intention to recognize Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem by moving the U.S. Embassy to the contested city. “His advisers say they have no problem with settlements. If we take violent action against Israel, we will lose the little land we still have left.”
● Jacob Wirtschafter reported from Cairo.
HEAT OF BATTLE: Thousands of brush fires have forced more than 100,000 Israelis to evacuate and have destroyed or damaged more than 500 homes as Palestinians change tactics in the wake of the Third Intifada.
Israeli police fatally shot a Palestinian man who pulled out a knife and stabbed a security officer in the West Bank, part of a series of attacks that has morphed over the past month into an outbreak of fires near towns in Israel and Jewish settlements in the West Bank. Whether the developments signal the latest intifada in Israel is up for debate.