Where does the arson investigation into Israel's wave of fires stand?

Police say that they are treating 29 out of 39 of the most serious fires that started over 2 weeks ago as arson or suspected arson.

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December 4, 2016 23:58
2 minute read.
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A firefighter uses a hose to extinguish flames.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

 
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Less than two weeks since flames tore across the country’s North and Center, arson investigators remain hard at work.

“In most areas you won’t find many things that say whether it was arson,” Ran Shelef, the Fire and Rescue Authority’s chief fire investigator, told The Jerusalem Post on Sunday. “In other cases like Halamish, we can say that it is arson.”

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Shelef said the authority has found evidence of arson in four areas: the Galilee, the broad area from Umm el-Fahm to Betar Illit, the West Bank and the central region. Investigators have not, however, determined the cause of the fires in Haifa. Police have declined to comment on ongoing investigations and do not publicly confirm the authority’s comments.
Forest Fire near Neve Shalom

Police say they are treating 29 out of the 39 most serious fires as arson or suspected arson; that is out of 1,773 brush fires that broke out across the country from November 18 to 26. Indictments have been filed against three people for arson – two minors and Ali Mahajnar, 24, who burned garbage in Umm el-Fahm in the North. Mahajnar said he burned the trash due to the municipality’s lack of garbage disposal services.

On Friday, the Fire and Rescue Authority’s Northern District fire investigator, Herzl Aharon, told Channel 2 the authority “still doesn’t know anything.”

“I go to a place and get an insight, and then I go to another place and it all changes,” he said. “It is very difficult to investigate.”

Shelef called Aharon’s statement “nonsense” and said he was either wrong or quoted out of context.

Shelef added that the authority contends that there was arson in Zichron Ya’acov and in the Halamish settlement, north of Ramallah, though police said they have not concluded investigations into the causes of those blazes.

“The investigation is under full control of the Israel Police,” who will make the final determinations, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told the Post. “This is not a 24-hour investigation; you don’t find petrol at the scene.”

Rosenfeld said the police were not overeager in arresting Israeli Arabs and that officers had “strong suspicions of non-negligent [acts] leading [one] to believe that fires were deliberate.”

Police have arrested 39 suspects and released 29 unconditionally, according to Channel 2. Releasing a suspect means either he is no longer a suspect or that the investigation can continue without the suspect in detention.

Arguably the best-known arson suspect, Jamal Katush, 44, who was seen starting a fire in an image publicized by police, was released on Friday, suggesting that police do not suspect a political motive. Katush, who also extinguished the fire, said he was burning trash a few meters from his home outside Battir, a Palestinian village near Betar Illit.

Shelef said the investigations are challenging.

“Most the physical evidence is destroyed,” he said. “We have to work using a lot of imagination and with a lot of experience.”

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