Arson conspiracy

Our country is like a powder keg that is constantly being stuffed with more and more explosives.

December 15, 2016 22:09
Art by Yoram Raanan

Yoram's art gallery after the fire. (photo credit: NETANEL SHARVIT)

A slew of conspiracy theories has been making the rounds in the print media and on social media since the wave of fires broke out a few weeks ago. Some people claim that a large portion of the fires were planned in advance as terrorist attacks and that Israel’s security agents have let down their guard. This sounds like a fantastic plot for an action thriller, but it is far from reality.

According to the Israel Fire and Rescue Authority, 1,773 fires burned on Israeli territory during the week-long wave of blazes, 39 of which were defined as exceptional in terms of size, and 25 of which were under suspicion of having been set intentionally.

During a typical work week, firefighters put out hundreds of small fires around the country.

It is also important to note that nationalistically related arson attacks have been carried out in Israel since pre-state times, and have continued throughout Israel’s existence. Of course, we must not make light of the recent arson attacks and there is no doubt that these actions are a continuation of the wave of terrorism that began in October 2015, even though its extent and duration have been completely different.

The simple facts are that the first fires that broke out were a result of negligence or of the unusually dry weather and strong east winds that increased static electricity. The combination of these conditions resulted in fires erupting throughout the entire Middle East. Dozens of fires broke out in Jordan and 78 blazes caused damage within the Palestinian Authority.

Israeli intelligence agents could not have predicted where terrorist cells were planning to set fires, because they weren’t. Just as the authorities do not receive intelligence warnings and so cannot predict where a lone wolf knife attack will take place, neither can they know where an individual might decide to set a fire. We cannot know when someone is going to wake up one morning and decide out of frustration to suddenly stab a soldier or run over a border policeman in downtown Jerusalem with his car. This is exactly what happened recently with the fires – individuals took advantage of the dry, windy weather and used it to carry out terrorist arson attacks. One successful attempt encouraged copycats and soon a whole bunch of violent perpetrators were becoming instant heroes.

Getting a fire going in the forest in this type of weather does not require any advanced preparation. All you need is three bottles filled with gasoline, a match or a lighter, and some wind. That’s it. And apparently this is all that was used in the recent arson attacks, and the damage caused by them is huge. However, none of this means that the perpetrators had engaged in long-term strategic planning or coordination with terrorists in other parts of the country. And we don’t need to be intelligence experts to understand this.

In general, the Shin Bet is quite capable of gathering intelligence, detecting suspicious activity, identifying suspects and thwarting terrorist attacks before they take place. This is the situation with more than 90% of planned terrorist attacks in Israel. No other country in the world has such a high rate of thwarted attacks. But even the East German Stasi and the Romanian Securitate, which were considered intelligence agencies that knew everything about their citizens, could not have succeeded in predicting when a lone wolf terrorist would choose to stab an innocent citizen or set a fire in the forest.

It’s not easy to live in such a reality. Our country is like a powder keg that is constantly being stuffed with more and more explosives.

Day and night we hear incitement from Arab and Jewish Knesset members spouting epithets against each other. The Jewish MKs proclaim that all the Arabs want to annihilate us and then the Arabs MKs claim that the Jews are planning to take over the Temple Mount. The legislative and judicial systems in Israel are very lenient when it comes to doling out sentences following incitement, since according to the law, people can only be tried if its proven that their actions caused damage to a third party. This is very hard to prove and as a result, many perpetrators go unpunished.

The recent wave of arson attacks has ended thanks to the arrival of winter rains, and we should take advantage of this hiatus to prepare ourselves for the next round of violence. It doesn’t matter what weapon is used – a knife, gun, car or match. There is no shortage of people who will use their religious faith as an excuse to commit violent acts. Unfortunately, intelligence gathering does little to prevent lone wolf attacks.

Israeli security forces are not yet ready to deal with this type of threat. Our police force is too small, weak and underfunded to handle such incidents. Our firefighting force, which underwent a huge overhaul following the 2010 Mount Carmel tragedy, is still understaffed and ill-equipped to deal with so many fires blazing simultaneously.

For the amount of money we spent on one submarine and two F-35s, we could have hired thousands of policemen and firefighters, bought more patrol cars and fire trucks, and acquired a serious firefighting tanker airplane that could put out any fire no matter how big.

We also need to increase the presence of security and law enforcement forces in open areas. We need to have more officers on the ground, and also upgrade our technological presence through air balloons and thermal cameras, as well as reconnaissance planes that search large areas of ground. (The latter is already being carried out by the IAF, but not within Israel’s borders.) Another way we can prevent fires from destroying homes is by creating firebreaks between forests and residential areas.

The last improvement we need to make is increasing deterrence and harsh sentences.

Although the current law allows severe punishment of perpetrators of arson attacks, the courts are often quite lenient.

This is a shame, because if we don’t punish culprits to the full extent of the law, we have no deterrence. It is my belief that if we were to revoke residency or citizenship, demolish homes, and dole out long prison terms, terrorists might think twice before attacking.

The challenge the Shin Bet faces is to quickly identify the perpetrators of arson attacks and to arrest them so that justice may be carried out. And of course to prevent such attacks from ever happening in the first place.

The writer is a former brigadier-general who served as a division head in the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).

Translated by Hannah Hochner.

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