From the very first day of the wildfires that broke out around Israel last week, we heard from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other members of his government harsh incitement against Israel’s Palestinian citizens. Israel was facing a wave of terrifying fires that threatened everyone in their path.
From day one there was a sense of rage from Israel’s citizens, blasted loudly by the media, quoting the prime minister, that the Palestinians, mainly those with Israeli citizenship, had discovered a new weapon in their war against Israel’s existence. The media even dubbed it “eshtifada” (Hebrew for fire is “esh”). It was easy to forget that the first fire almost burned down the joint Jewish-Arab village Neve Shalom and was not caused by arson or terrorists.
There was almost no mention made by the politicians or the media of the fact that in Haifa, for example, the humidity level had dropped to five percent when normally at this time of year it is above 50%, or that winds which are normally about 10 kph were over 60. These unusual weather conditions hit other parts of the region, including the West Bank, Cyprus and Greece, and led to huge fires in those places too.
The difference between Israel and those locations is the large number of trees Israel has planted since its birth. But with all of the wonderful forestry undertaken by the Jewish National Fund all of these past years, most of the trees planted were the non-indigenous and extremely flammable pine trees.
There was also almost no mention of the fact that many of the fires were the result of things like lit cigarettes thrown from passing cars. The fires mostly spread due to dry weather and the wind.
Now police and firefighter investigators are already saying that some 30% of the fires were caused by arson – many of the arsonists were copycats who saw the panic and terror that the fires had created caught the wave of support in Arab social media. There was not the usual amount of hate incitement on social media coming from Palestinian Israelis, or from the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Such incitement did come from Hamas in Gaza – but most of it came from neighboring countries, the ones Netanyahu has been bragging about with regard to the good relations that have supposedly developed between them and Israel due to the common threats of Islamic State and Iran.
What did come out of the Palestinian Israeli community, and from Palestine – the West Bank, was a lot of good will, support, help, calls to host people who lost their homes and a sense of common values in loving the land that we share (albeit not very well).
The Palestinian Authority sent its fire brigade. Calls went out from all over the Galilee and the Little Triangle from Palestinian citizens of Israel, opening their homes to anyone – Jew or Arab, who lost their homes.
Even the Islamic Movement in Israel set up a situation room facilitating hosting by Arab citizens of anyone who needed it. In a way, it demonstrated the best of Israel and confirmed that Jewish and Palestinian citizens of this country can cooperate, expressing the demand for a genuine shared society.
Israel’s Palestinian citizens are anxious to feel a sense of belonging. They demand equality and much has been achieved in the past years, with Netanyahu’s government adding more budgetary support to the Arab sector than any government since that of Yitzhak Rabin. But it will take more than money to close the gaps and create a shared society. It demands that the prime minister cease his incitement against the Palestinian citizens of Israel. It requires that the prime minister reprimand the defense minister for his leading role in creating hatred against the Palestinian citizens and demand that he cease and desist.
Creating a shared society means recognizing that while Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, it is also the state of all of its non-Jewish citizens, who number some 20% of the public. While economic gaps are shrinking, the “belonging gap” has widened significantly over the past years, and this is mostly the fault of the current Israeli government.
It is true that until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is resolved and a peace agreement signed and implemented, the Palestinian citizens of Israel will be considered suspect because of their natural alliance with their own people who are in conflict with Israel. But until then, there is a lot that can be done to let the Palestinian citizens of Israel know that this is also their country. Closing the “belonging gap” not only serves Israel’s foremost challenge as a democracy, it will also serves Israel’s desire to have peace with all of its Arab neighbors. Many of those neighbors look at the struggle of Israel’s Palestinian citizens for equality and for their identity and survival as a national minority – as expressed by them and by their leaders – and then question Israel’s desire to live in peace within the region. Making peace at home – citizen-to-citizen – is not a threat to Israel’s identity and certainly not a threat to Israel’s security. The vast majority of Israel’s Palestinian citizens are law abiding, peaceful people.
They have made remarkable achievements in the past 68 years and their prosperity and sense of belonging makes Israel a better country. Israel’s leaders have a responsibility to all of Israel’s citizens to build the paths of inclusion and belonging for Israel’s Palestinian citizens. A really responsible prime minister would place building a shared society in Israel as a high priority. An irresponsible prime minister would continue inciting against one-fifth of the citizens of his country.
The author is founder and co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives. www.ipcri.org.