The damage caused by Israel fires goes beyond the material

Israel must be prepared for a recurrence of the distrust between Jews and Arabs that accompanies periods of violence such as last month’s fires.

By Moshe Arens

Unprecedented physical damage was caused by the fires that began on November 22 in many parts of Israel, and which took a week to subdue. Over 20,000 dunams (some 5,000 acres) of forests and brushland were burned, hundreds of homes were destroyed, over a thousand were left homeless. It will take years to recover from the damage caused, but the damage will be repaired. It will take time, a lot of work, and a lot of money.

The fires brought forth allegations that Arabs had contributed to spreading the fires. They, it was charged by some, had exploited the extraordinary dryness and easterly winds that were the cause of the fires to add fuel to the fire. These allegations, which generally were unsubstantiated, which sometimes were of a general nature, pointing an accusing finger at all or most of Israel’s Arab citizens, have caused damage to the fragile relationship developed over the years between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens, a relationship fundamental to Israel’s existence.

How long will it take to recover this damage? Unlike the physical damage caused by the fires, this damage that accompanied the fires is difficult to measure and cannot be quantified.

It has taken years to make substantial progress leading to the integration of Israel’s Arab citizens into society, and to begin to build a relationship of trust between Jews and Arabs in Israel. It should be recognized that this is the most important challenge facing the State of Israel. A great deal more needs to be done. Unfortunately, when periodically there is a setback, caused by people’s reaction to a wave of terror, a military operation or the recent forest fires, accusing fingers are pointed at Israel’s Arab citizens, it is suggested that they publicly disassociate themselves from acts of terror to which they had no connection, they are put on the defensive and feel hurt, and the task of rebuilding mutual trust starts over again.

It’s not that there are not some of Israel’s Arab citizens who support acts of terror against Israel’s Jewish citizens; there have even been some who have themselves committed such acts. But they are a small minority. The majority of Israel’s Arab citizens oppose these acts and realize that they are harmful to their interests. Similarly, there are Jewish citizens who have committed acts of terror against Arabs and vandalized mosques and churches. But they are a small minority of Israel’s Jewish citizens. It is the tendency of some, especially in times of stress, to see the minority committing acts of terror as representing or being supported by an entire community that causes damage to the relationship between the two communities.

Considering the state of the Arab-Jewish conflict and the state of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, we have to be prepared for a recurrence of conflicting emotions between Jews and Arabs that accompany periods of violence. In order to avoid continuing damage to the relations between Jewish and Arab citizens, the problem has to be addressed at all levels of Israel’s society.

Israel’s Jewish citizens must be cautioned against wild exaggerations and generalizations leveled against their fellow Arab citizens. The importance of the bond between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens has to be emphasized and people have to be made aware of the damage to Israel caused when that bond is impaired.

All this has to be explained to children in schools and students at universities and colleges. It should be a recurrent theme in the media. But most important, the government must take the lead, and the prime minister must make it clear that strengthening the bond between Israel’s Jewish and Arab citizens has top priority.

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