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The Arson Intifada

Binyamin Rose

Hundreds of fires wreaked havoc in the lives of thousands of Israelis last week, but the bigger question is when and if it will happen again

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

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BURNT TO THE GROUND The new aerial firefighting unit, together with firefighting aircraft from other countries, eventually managed to get the fires under control and save lives, but couldn’t prevent dozens of homes from burning to the ground (Photos: Flash 90 /Israel Police Spokesman)

I t was a night seder that Rabbi Dovid Schechter will never forget. Rabbi Schechter is the night seder rebbi and dormitory supervisor at Yeshivat Ohr Yerushalayim, a post high-school yeshivah for American bochurim in Beit Meir, a religious moshav ten miles west of Jerusalem.

“We had mishmar on Thursday night like we normally do, until about midnight, and then I went home to get some sleep,” Rabbi Schechter said.

Two hours later, police sirens and megaphones roused him along with the yishuv’s 800 other residents with orders to evacuate. A fire, fanned by wind gusts topping 30 miles per hour, was bearing down on the heavily forested community.

“The moshav has only one way in and out, and the fire broke out at entrance. It was quite frightening and a lot of the boys were in tears,” says Rabbi Shmuel Machlis, the yeshivah’s administrator. Back at the dormitory, once Rabbi Schechter and a couple of helpers ascertained that all 60 bochurim were present and accounted for, they tried to flee, but were initially stymied.

“The moshav called for a bus, but it couldn’t get through. The cops told us to divide up the boys into residents’ private cars,” Rabbi Schechter said. “I went back home and got my wife and children and our two sifrei Torah into the car. The cops told us to go do

wn to the lower part of the moshav, near the basketball court, where the fire hadn’t reached.” There was one other potential escape route — through Burma Road, a bypass built during the 1948 siege of Jerusalem — but that winding pass is unsafe without a four-wheel-drive vehicle. So the Schechters stayed on the low ground, until police told them that the fire had been tamed enough for them to use the exit. “Even then, we had to drive out with our windows closed tight because of the smoke, and the fire was still blazing on both sides of the road.”

As of press time, police were holding two burglary suspects from a nearby Arab village in connection with the blaze. In this case, investigators say the fire started when Israeli border guards pursuing the burglars fired an errant flare, touching off the blaze.

The fire left at least $35,000 in smoke and water damage to the yeshivah. But that was just the beginning. The blaze destroyed at least ten homes, including older ones with asbestos insulation that burned up into a potentially toxic dust rising through the superheated night air.

The fire at Beit Meir was just one of more than 600 that blazed through Israel for four days last week. Police say arsonists took advantage of unseasonably windy and dry weather to set half or more of those fires.

Haifa, Israel’s third-largest city, was hardest hit: Some 65,000 people, or almost one-fourth of the city’s 270,000 residents, fled their homes for up to two days.

“It was a miracle that no one was seriously hurt. Entire streets were in flames,” says ZAKA Special Units commander Haim Outmezgine. “All of the residents managed to escape before the flames took hold.”

That includes Avital Buchnik, who lives in Achuzah, a Haifa neighborhood that was severely damaged. Avital had taken a vacation day and was home at 10 a.m. when she smelled smoke. “I just closed all the shades and windows to prevent the smoke from getting in,” she says.

Half an hour later, her son, Maor Buchnik, a lieutenant in the IDF who arrived home the night before, decided to open the window, only to be greeted by flames that burst into their living room. Lieutenant Buchnik ran to his mother, saying: “We’re leaving right now!”

At least ten homes were destroyed in Beit Meir, and in Haifa, entire neighborhoods were engulfed in flames. Still, “it was a miracle that no one was seriously hurt”

Avital grabbed her phone, but with nowhere to go, they wandered for hours in the now chaotic streets. A neighbor finally noticed her in shock and took her in. But Lieutenant Buchnik had stayed behind. With firefighters battling more serious blazes to adjacent building, her son and a neighbor used their backyard hose and one of the building’s water hoses for four hours until they finally extinguished the flames.

Avital’s husband Shlomi, who works in a downtown hospital, returned home from his shift later that afternoon. “Three buildings around us burned down, so we are, baruch Hashem, in relatively good shape, with just smoke damage and the loss of some windows,” Shlomi said.

The fires have destroyed more than 20,000 dunams (5,000 acres) of forest, brushland, and other open space, according to the Jewish National Fund and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, and an equivalent amount of residential acreage has been subjected to severe fire damage. Several hundred houses have burned down or are uninhabitable. The property and environmental damage is as extensive as it was in the 2010 Carmel Forest fire.

However, in the Carmel fire, 44 people were killed, mainly prison service cadets trapped in the bus they were traveling on in the flaming forest. This time, there were no deaths, and only about 50 reported injuries.

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