As Hurricane Katrina demonstrated the misplaced priorities of the George W. Bush administration, the Carmel fire has similarly exposed the reality of Israel’s domestic and foreign policy priorities. Rather than address these issues in his Dec. 7 Op-Ed article, Israeli Ambassador Michael B. Oren instead used the tragedy for cheap political gain. While Oren extolled the possible benefits of “enlightened cooperation” to achieve peace, he and the government he represents ignore that enlightened policies not only lead to cooperation and peace but are the requisite precursor.
Although Oren recognized the assistance of the Palestinian Authority in fighting the fire, he bemoaned that its leaders were “still declining to return to peace talks.” Absent is the reason why: Israel’s ongoing settlement program in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem in violation of international law. Israel’s refusal to halt settlement construction, even after being offered unprecedented incentives from the Obama administration for a mere 90-day extension of its limited moratorium on building, stands in sharp contrast to its response to the Carmel fire.
It is telling that as an international coalition battled the Carmel fire, Israeli soldiers were deployed near the Palestinian villages of Bil’in, Nil’in and Nabi Saleh, where another coalition — Palestinians, Israelis and international activists — holds weekly nonviolent protests against Israel’s immense 480-mile “separation wall” and expanding settlements. As always, the protests were met by a combination of live ammunition, rubber bullets and tear gas — the latter causing some small brush fires.
Why were Israeli soldiers starting fires in Palestinian villages instead of fighting one in Israel? Because sustaining Israel’s occupation and settlement policy is paramount to its politicians and military leaders. Since Israel’s occupation began in June 1967, successive Israeli governments have placed a priority on colonizing the Palestinian territories. This effort has expanded frantically since the Oslo Accords were signed in September 1993, and today Israel directly controls almost 60% of the West Bank.
The emphasis on settlements has led some prominent figures in the Israeli media and government to call for the resignation of Interior Minister Eli Yishai. According to the Israeli daily Haaretz, although Yishai sought and failed to obtain the funds to boost his country’s firefighting budget, he never pursued the issue with the same vigor with which he advocated the expansion of settlements in occupied East Jerusalem. Yishai is a member of the religious Shas party, whose leader, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, claimed in his weekly sermon that the fire was “divine providence” because “fires only happen in a place where Shabbat is desecrated.”
Though Oren condemned similar statements by a Hamas official and mentioned the threat posed by Hezbollah’s rockets, the inconvenient facts about Israel’s policy priorities and failures and the statement by Yosef were notably absent.
The fire has also laid bare the false claim that Palestinians must recognize Israel as a “Jewish state” for peace talks to succeed. Only two months ago, Oren asserted in the New York Times that this was a requisite part of any peace agreement. Yet in the fire’s wake, he explained that “Israelis from all religious and ethnic backgrounds joined in combating the flames” and that there were Jewish, Arab and Druze victims. Israel (and Oren) cannot have it both ways, extolling the multi-ethnic, multi-religious and multicultural nature of the country while pursuing and implementing policies and laws that enshrine and enforce racial and religious preferences and prejudice. Israel can either be a state of all its citizens or an apartheid state.
Under the scorched brush and ash lies another story, one that strikes at the heart of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and the decades-old policies by Israeli governments of erasure and denial. The pine trees that helped fuel the Carmel fire are not indigenous to the region. Rather, they were planted as part of a six-decade program by the Jewish National Fund to create parks. Those trees also cover the ruins and remnants of Palestinian villages, over 400 of which were destroyed when Israel was founded in 1948. The inhabitants of these villages were expelled or fled from attacks by pre-state Zionist militias and later the Israeli army and became refugees. Sixty-two years later, the Palestinian refugees still wait for Israel and the international community to live up to their responsibilities under international law so they can return to their homes and receive compensation for their losses.
The international response to the Carmel fire has demonstrated that condemnation of Israel is not due to anti-Semitism but to Israel’s policies and actions. What is needed now is an honest reflection and assessment by Israel’s leaders and the political will to find a solution where there is not merely “enlightened cooperation” but an enlightened society in which both Israelis and Palestinians live in peace with equality and justice.
Osamah Khalil is co-director of Al-Shabaka, The Palestinian Policy Network, a Berkeley-based transnational think tank with policy advisors around the world.