Despite claims of mass arson, only 3 indictments filed for recent blazes

Two weeks after fires, many suspects released, and authorities offer conflicting information.

December 9, 2016 00:51
Fire in Israel

A firefighting plane drops fire retardant during a wildfire, near the communal settlement of Nataf, close to Jerusalem November 23, 2016. . (photo credit: REUTERS)

A small number of indictments, a large number of released suspects and a general lack of evidence connecting suspects to arson in last month’s wildfires, raises questions about the validity of claims by politicians that most of the fires were caused by terrorist arson.

At the time, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that arsonists were behind most of the fires; Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan claimed that almost 50% were caused by arson; Education Minister Naftali Bennett implied they were set by Arabs citizens or Palestinians; and Interior Minister Arye Deri and Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev threatened to revoke the citizenship of arsonists.

Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh hit back at much of the political upper echelons for what he said was incitement against the Arab-Israeli population for fires he claimed were likely caused by a combination of negligence and dry weather.

As of Thursday, The Jerusalem Post learned that out of 58 suspects arrested, 40 have been released unconditionally.

Police usually do not release violent or dangerous suspects unconditionally, though that does not mean they will all be free from some kind of indictment later.

In addition, only three indictments against six Israeli Arabs have been filed for involvement in setting minor fires, not the major blazes that caused extensive damage to Haifa and Zichron Ya’acov.

From November 19 to 28, there were approximately 2,600 brush fires and 1,800 urban fires. The overwhelming majority were minor, meaning only one fire truck was needed to extinguish it.

Thirty-nine fires were major, requiring 10 or more fire trucks.

No indictments or announcements of arrests have been made related to the Haifa and Zichron Ya’acov blazes. Although Fire and Rescue Authority Chief Investigator Ran Shelef said that the fires in Zichron Ya’acov near the coast, and near the Halamish settlement in Samaria, were caused by arson, these has been no announcement that suspects have been identified.

Fire authorities are reluctant to say what proportion of the blazes were the result of arson.

“I don’t like the use of percentages, there were so many brush fires over the two weeks and we couldn’t investigate them all,” Shelef said.

Police declined to comment on Fire and Rescue Authority statements regarding the arson investigations.

“There is a difference between the Fire Authority investigation and criminal law, and evidence that a specific person lit a fire because of specific reason,” a police source told the Post on Thursday.

“Maybe there are cases that the Fire Authority says that they have evidence of arson, but we cannot say if someone did it.

“Investigations are not like a show on TV,” the source said, when asked why there have been only three indictments.

Police would not say how many of the suspects are detained on suspicion of nationally motivated arson.

“We are only saying if we are able to establish evidence to say someone made a fire happen,” the source said.

On December 1, Ali Muhajina of Umm el-Fahm in the Wadi Ara region was indicted for setting fires in the city.

The indictment says nothing about terrorism, with the implication being that the arson only inconvenienced other Israeli Arabs in Umm el-Fahm. One possible motivation was protest against a lack of trash disposal.

On December 2, two minors from Judeida-Makr east of Acre, whose names are under gag order, were indicted for setting fires in Judeida-Makr and Moshav Ahihud. Judeida- Makr is once again an Israeli-Arab town, and while Ahihud is a Jewish town, the indictment does not refer to terrorism in the fire that only damaged around 15 trees.

The first clear arson terrorist indictment came on Wednesday. Rami Hatib, Amir Salem and a minor from Deir Hana in the Lower Galilee set fires around the village.

The indictment was the first to mention that the defendants wanted to set fires to connect larger blazes that hit the country.

As of Thursday, the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) was interrogating suspects, but had not made any announcements or given indications as to whether any of the suspects were connected to major fires.

According to Shelef, there is strong evidence of arson in approximately 40 to 50 cases, 25 of which involve major fires. More than 4,000 urban and brush fires have not been investigated.

The Fire Authority has so far investigated 100 fires, chosen because there was suspicion of arson, Shelef said.

Those fires occurred in the Galilee, along the security barrier from Umm el-Fahm in the North, to Betar Illit in the South, in Zichron Ya’acov, and the West Bank settlements of Ariel and Halamish north of Ramallah.

In what may be the most high-profile case of suspected arson, Jawad Katoush, 43, from Battir near Betar Illit and south of Jerusalem, was released on December 1 after being imprisoned for five days and interrogated by the Shin Bet. His lawyer, Gaby Lasky, told the Post earlier this week that he set the fire meters away from his home on agricultural land he owns, to prepare the ground for planting, as he does every year.

On the day of his arrest, police released video of Katoush setting a fire and called on the Israeli-Arab and Palestinian leaderships “to express disgust and condemn incitement and incitement to commit crime.”

Brig.-Gen. (res.) Meir Elran, a fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies and the former deputy head of IDF Military Intelligence, told the Post on Thursday, “It might be hard or impossible to find a basis for our leaders’ statements... the facts that have not been found say it all.”

According to Elran’s research, onethird of fires in open areas in Israel over the past two years were, upon investigation, classified as arson, similar to the prevailing situation in other countries around the world.

In that light, he said the state should investigate arson, but that its approach “should reflect the realization that arson is not the main operational tactic of anti-Israeli terrorism, and that arson, including in the most recent cases, is not the main reason for the fires.”

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