With hundreds of wildfires currently raging across Israel for a third consecutive day, many are concerned that this may be a new form of terrorism.
Israel Police estimate that over 200 fires have broken out throughout central and northern Israel since Wednesday and assessments by police have strengthened suspicions that many the fires were deliberately set, some suspected of being nationalistically motivated.
Boaz Ganor, Founder & Executive Director, International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT), told The Jerusalem Post that “even if a portion are intentional, is not organized. It’s not that you have a terror organization giving orders to their members to carry out fire attacks, though maybe in a few hours you can have groups like Hamas claiming the fires.”
But, “one thing is clear,” Ganor said, “it is not a new form of terrorism. Arson attacks and setting fires in populated areas or forests are a well known modus operandi of terror groups, and not only in Israel. In one of the magazine Inspire from al-Qaida they called on their followers to carry out arson attacks.”
In the 9th issue of the English-language Inspire Magazine, released by Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) in 2012, there was a significant portion dedicated to attacking the United States by starting wildfires. The magazine listed instruction to ignite forest fires and the materials required and readers are instructed to look for two factors needed for a successful wildfire, dry conditions and high winds.
“When we define this phenomenon as “fire intifada”, words used by the media, politicians and laypeople, we are overestimating the phenomenon,” Ganor told The Post. Nevertheless, Ganor explained that the pictures on social media networks like Twitter of flames in the center of Haifa and surrounding Jerusalem are “heaven for those who may want to join the so-called ‘fire intifada’, especially if you add false reasoning of revenge for banning the call to prayer.”
Yoram Schweitzer, Senior Research Fellow, head of the Program on Terrorism and Low Intensity Conflict at the INSS told The Jerusalem Post that the term “fire intifada” should not be used, stressing that before accusing anyone there should be a full investigation into the fires.
The wildfires have been cheered by many on social media, using the hashtag #اسراييل_تحترق or #IsraelBurns, many saying that this is divine retribution for the pending controversial law to limit loudspeakers for the Muslim call to prayer.
Last week Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal said that “what the Israeli occupation state is doing at the Al-Aqsa Mosque, as well as preventing the call to prayer in Jerusalem, is playing with fire. This created a fierce reaction in the Palestinian community and the whole of the Islamic nation.”
But, “we should not exaggerate the terroristic motivations behind the wildfires,” Ganor said, stressing that “the conditions right now are perfect for fires, with an extended period of dry weather and strong winds.”
Michael Horowitz, Director of intelligence at Prime Source, a Middle East based geopolitical consultancy firm agreed. “It is too early to conclude that this is a “new form of terror”, but it definitely can turn into that because of the virality of the trend,” he told The Post, adding that “it’s been praised by Hamas, and the hashtag “Israel is burning” is trending in Arabic. The mere perception of success can be enough to encourage copycat” attacks.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday visited the Fire and Rescue Service coastal district forward command center, where was briefed on the efforts to put out the fires, many of them he said are “deliberate acts of arson.”
In Haifa, senior firefighter, Shimon Ben Ner, spoke on Army Radio saying that “I know for a fact that they tried to set fire to the department’s station in Haifa deliberately to cause the Haifa fire department to be paralyzed.”
In 2010, 44 people were killed in Israel’s worst wildfire. The three-day Carmel Forest Fire destroyed thousands of acres of land and saw 17,000 people evacuated from their homes as well as various prisons, hospitals and military jails.
Two residents of the Druze town of Daliyat al-Karmel, were arrested for allegedly attempting to start a fire after throwing a bottle in the Mount Carmel area. While police officials later said no wrongdoing had been established with certainty, many believe that arson was behind the Carmel Forest Fire.
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