Investigation: Was terror behind the devastating string of fires last year?

Data indicates more smoke than fire in politicians' claims that deliberate arson was the cause of the blazes that scorched Israel in 2016.

November 27, 2017 17:27
4 minute read.

Palestinian firefighters work with Israelis to put out flames

Palestinian firefighters work with Israelis to put out flames


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Fires that devastated entire neighborhoods in Haifa and the outskirts of Jerusalem a year ago were swiftly denounced as acts of terrorism by politicians, some pointing the finger at Israeli-Arabs.

But a year later, even as some indictments and data support that accusations, most of the information suggests that while politicians fanned the flames, the terrorism connection was significantly overplayed and the Israeli-Arab connection was minuscule.

A look at some of the charge sheets issued shows that in December, Ali Muhajina of Umm el-Fahm in the Wadi Ara region was indicted for setting fires in his hometown. That indictment mentions 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.

Two minors from Judeida-Makr east of Acre were indicted for setting fires in that village and in nearby 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.

An indictment issued on December 7 charged 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 had deliberately sought to have their fires spread to the larger blazes, such as that which engulfed parts of Haifa. But it did not label their actions as terrorism.

Israel Radio and other Israeli media have said that only five indictments in all have been issued for last year’s wave of fire, and that none of them listed terrorism as a motive. The Justice Ministry has told the Post there were four indictments filed against eight individuals and that none were for terrorist arson and none of the suspects had been labeled as responsible for most of the Haifa fires.

Still, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Education Minister Naftali Bennett were likely correct that a minority of the fires were caused by terrorist arson.

The Shin Bet says that around a dozen indictments were handed down following the blazes.

Most were filed in military courts in the West Bank, against Palestinians, not Israeli-Arabs, which is why these indictments didn’t appear in Justice Ministry data. Sources close to the cases put the number of indictments against Palestinians for arson related to the wave of fires at 15.

Channel 2 television has reported that all the indictments issued in the West Bank cited a terrorist motive for the blazes. Fire and Rescue Authority Chief Investigator Ran Shelef has argued that a majority of the fires as well as the fires in Zichron Yaakov near the coast, and near the Halamish settlement in Samaria, were caused by arson.

Based on his position and the position of police, Erdan has stood his ground and last week said that he believed that 80-90% of the fires were caused by arson.

But the Post has learned that there is one more twist. True, all 15 of those charged in the West Bank were accused of “intended” arson, as opposed to “negligent arson.”

Yet none of them were formally labeled as terrorist arson because the IDF West Bank Court system has no such designation within its criminal statute.

Erdan said last week that if a Palestinian leaves his village to go to an Israeli village, sets a fire and then flees, “then it is essentially known that it was motivated” by terror. This is an interpretation, which may be tough to argue with. But these indictments relate to fires set in the West Bank. What about the worst of the blazes, which took place in Haifa? Haifa’s fires accounted for 75% of claims for property damage.

Also, if there were 15 indictments against Palestinians and only four against Israeli-Arabs, it means that anyone who lumped Israeli-Arabs in with Palestinians for responsibility for the wave of fires has nothing or little to stand on. The fires erupted between November 19 and 28. In all, there were approximately 2,600 brush fires and another 1,800 conflagrations inside cities or built up areas. 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 to quell the blazes.

According to an Israel Radio program with Keren Neubach last week, 2,700 complaints for property damage were filed, including 2,000 from the Haifa area alone. NIS 227 million has been paid out to those suffering property damage.

So terrorism was part of the picture, but a minor part, and where it played a role, it was mostly Palestinians, not Israeli-Arabs.

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