November 28, 2016 - Forest fires raise strategic issues; so does Golan clash with ISIS

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Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

This week, Alpher discusses what we have learned from Israel's recent emergence from a week of battling massive forest fires; climate change as a national security issue for Israel; "pyro-terrorism;" the state of Israel’s emergency services; the strategic significance of all this regional and international aid to Israel for the fires; and how significant is Sunday's IDF clash with an ISIS force on the Golan.

Q. Israel has just emerged from a traumatic week of battling massive forest fires. What have we learned?

A. The fires, which wiped out large sections of forests particularly in the Jerusalem and Haifa areas, posed strategic dilemmas in no fewer than five issue areas: climate change, demography, forestation, terror by arson or pyro-terrorism, and emergency services.

 

Q. Let’s take the first three together. Climate change, population growth and forestation are obviously related. Certainly climate change as a national security issue is hardly unique to Israel.

A. Climate change is not unique. The past week witnessed days and nights of exceptionally dry winds coming from the deserts to Israel’s east--sometimes hot, sometimes cold, but always dry, driving humidity levels down to 10 percent. An earlier instance of climate change that caused drought in southern Syria and drove a million farmers into towns and cities by turning their fields to dust was one of the original causes of the Syrian revolution. Now those new deserts in southern Syria rendered the dry windstorm from the east all the worse. In these conditions, fires were inevitable.

Here we must factor in Israel’s exceptional demographic growth. The population now numbers well over eight million; the northern part of Israel has one of the densest populations in the world. Add to this that Israel is a world leader in forestation and we confront large portions of the country where highly flammable forests grow right up to the line of urban sprawl. Israelis even insist on planting groves of trees among and between apartment blocks. Legislation allowing emergency services to clear trees from areas deemed too close to city housing is on the books but has not been implemented. Small wonder that in the upper reaches of Haifa alone last week, some 60,000 residents were evacuated and around 600 dwellings destroyed by fire.

 

Q. Pyro-terrorism?

A. Out of 110 separate fires reported, 17 were deemed to have been the result of deliberate arson. Some 29 suspects were arrested, most of them Arab citizens of Israel and a few West Bank residents. All the other fires were apparently the result of negligence on the part of farmers, construction workers and hikers--bearing in mind that in last week’s climatic conditions the smallest spark could cause a quickly-spreading fire.

It remains to be seen whether the arson was a spontaneous act on the part of Arab individuals who saw an irresistible opportunity to vent their anger at Israel, or it reflected planning and organization by a terrorist organization. Several of those arrested had posted blatant incitement on social media calling on Palestinians to start fires.

Yet most Arab citizens of Israel condemned the arsonists. Israeli Arabs were prominent among the firefighters. And Israel’s Arab neighbors actively aided the firefighting efforts.

 

Q. That brings us to the state of Israel’s emergency services.

A. This wave of fires provided an excellent test of emergency services readiness. Uniquely in Israel, the issue is important not only in view of the danger of forest fires, tsunamis and earthquakes. Virtually the entire country is now within range of over 100,000 Hezbollah rockets and missiles supplied primarily by Iran and deployed across the Lebanon border to Israel’s north. Then there is Hamas’s more modest arsenal in the Gaza Strip. While Hezbollah is currently very busy--and bleeding--in Syria where it fights on behalf of Iran and the Assad regime, the arsenal is still there and the Iran/Hezbollah threats to destroy Israel have not gone away.

So evacuation procedures are important. Recent experience--the 2006 Second Lebanon War with Hezbollah and the 2010 Mt. Carmel forest fire--has been tragic in terms of loss of lives: 44 civilians (and 119 soldiers) killed in the 2006 war and 44 civilians and firefighters in the 2010 Carmel fire. This time around, far more people were evacuated and there was no loss of life. In this regard, emergency procedures registered a dramatic improvement.

But when it comes to firefighting equipment the picture is less encouraging. Light firefighting planes purchased after the 2010 experience were ineffective because they could not take off and land in the strong eastern winds. While the fleet of ground firefighting vehicles and equipment was upgraded after 2010, it was still insufficient. Israeli firefighters could only look with envy at the brand-new EU-supplied fire trucks used by Palestinian firefighters who came to Israel’s aid in the Jerusalem area. Luckily, PM Netanyahu’s call for international aid was answered not only by the Palestinian Authority but by Jordan on the ground and Egypt, Greece, Cyprus, Russia, Turkey, Croatia and the US in the air.

 

Q. What is the strategic significance of all this regional and international aid?

A. All in all, it is positive. That the PA, Jordan, Egypt and Turkey came to Israel’s aid reflects a genuine concern on their part that should be reciprocated by the Netanyahu government. That is why it was extremely unhelpful to hear Defense Minister Lieberman and Education Minister Bennett call for Israel to respond to the pyro-terrorism of a handful of Arabs by expanding West Bank settlements. PA and PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas deserves better from Israel; it took courage for him to send aid despite public Palestinian hostility.

Then too, there is another worrisome aspect to the international aid proffered to Israel. Imagine--once the Assad regime in Syria has triumphed and Hezbollah forces have returned to their southern Lebanese bases--a third Lebanon war, with Hezbollah reinforced by Iranians and the Shiite foreign legion Iran has recruited to defend Assad. Thousands of rockets and missiles are falling all over Israel north of Beersheva, setting forests alight everywhere. Will Israel’s Arab and Turkish neighbors risk their fire-fighting planes to help it in wartime when the planes are vulnerable to enemy fire and their Arab and pro-Arab publics are hostile to the idea? Will problematic friends like Russia still help?

The conclusion is that Israel must devote far more of its own resources to building and deploying viable emergency services. PM Netanyahu’s post-emergency call to form an international fire-fighting force for the region may dovetail nicely with his effort to expand Israel’s regional strategic relations despite the ever-festering Palestinian issue. But not only does this ignore the growing one-state reality Netanyahu is presiding over. It simply won’t work. Next time we’re at war, some of our neighbors might sympathize, but I doubt they’ll help.

 

Q. On Sunday an IDF force clashed with an ISIS force on the Golan. How significant is this?

A. Since the Syrian revolution broke out in 2011, the IDF has clashed at the Golan border with Syrian army forces and with Hezbollah and its Iranian commanders. Here and there it has returned fire when an errant rebel mortar shell struck Israeli-held territory. But until Sunday the IDF had not fought a battle with ISIS.

This may have been a one-off incident or even an accident on the part of Shuhada al-Yarmuq, a branch of ISIS active in Syria’s southwest near its borders with Israel and Jordan. Or it may signal that ISIS, which is being battered increasingly in both northern Iraq (the battle for Mosul) and northern Syria (Raqqa) while fellow Islamist militants are besieged in Aleppo, is seeking to open a new front. Perhaps ISIS hopes to draw the IDF into combat against it inside Syria as a strategic diversion or a propaganda ploy to rally additional Arab Islamists to its side.

The fighting took place on Golan territory held by Israel, albeit on land outside Israel’s border fence, which for tactical reasons follows topography rather than ceasefire lines. So ignorance or misjudgment on the part of ISIS is a strong possibility. Four ISIS fighters were killed with no IDF casualties. Later on Sunday the Israel Air Force followed up by bombing an ISIS base across the Golan border that was located in a facility abandoned by UN peacekeepers due to the fighting in Syria. Hopefully ISIS got the deterrent message conveyed by the IDF response.

The days ahead will tell us whether we just witnessed a dramatic new development in the Syrian revolution or merely another in a long series of low-level, negligible overflow events that Israel has thus far prudently downplayed.

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