Fire at offices of left-wing NGO B'Tselem caused by electrical fault, not arson

Fire and emergency crews rushed to the scene in an effort to douse the blaze and search for individuals who may be trapped inside.

Fire at B'Tselem building Jerusalem, January 10, 2016 (photo credit: BERNARD BOUHADANA)
Fire at B'Tselem building Jerusalem, January 10, 2016
(photo credit: BERNARD BOUHADANA)
Faulty electrical wiring, not arson purportedly carried out by right-wing extremists, caused a large fire at the Jerusalem headquarters of the left-wing NGO B’Tselem late Sunday night, police and fire officials concluded on Monday.
According to a comprehensive report released by fire investigator Moshe Alazari following an intensive investigation into the possibility of a hate crime, it was determined that a short circuit in the ceiling led to the blaze.
“There were no signs of a break-in or any evidence to show arson,” the report concluded, amid numerous accusations of foul play.
Moreover, CCTV footage of the fire in the Mekor Haim neighborhood released by police on Monday supported Alazari’s findings.
B"Tselem fire video
While no employees of the controversial organization were present at the time of the 10 p.m. blaze, which gutted its first-floor office, firefighters rescued a cantor from a fourthfloor synagogue in the building who could not escape.
The unidentified man was treated at the scene by Magen David Adom paramedics and subsequently taken to Hadassah- University Medical Center in Ein Kerem suffering from smoke inhalation.
Shortly after the fire was extinguished, B’Tselem issued a statement indicating the possibility of arson.
“If it is discovered that this was an arson attack, it must be seen in the context of the wave of government incitement and smear campaigns against Israel’s human rights groups, and B’Tselem in particular,” the organization said.
However, as soon as arson was ruled out, B’Tselem issued a brief statement expressing relief.
“We are breathing freely again after the announcement by the Fire and Rescue Service that in all likelihood there was an electrical short circuit,” the statement said, adding “we’re going back to normal.”
Nonetheless, as soon as the blaze was reported on Sunday night, many rushed to judgment, assuming that it was indeed set by right-wing saboteurs who condemn the work B’Tselem carries out.
B’Tselem, also known as the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, was founded in 1989 by several prominent academics, attorneys, journalists and members of Knesset.
The group “endeavors to document and educate the Israeli public and policymakers about human rights violations in the occupied territories, combat the phenomenon of denial prevalent among the Israeli public and help create a human rights culture in Israel,” its website says.
Still, the organization came under fire last Thursday following a report on Channel 2’s investigative program Uvda, which aired surreptitiously recorded conversations implicating B’Tselem in a scheme to purportedly harm a Palestinian accused of selling land to a Jew.
In the segment, far-left activist Ezra Nawi is shown bragging about how Palestinian landowners are taken into custody by the Palestinian Authority’s Preventative Security Service and then tortured and later killed.
“Straightaway, I give their pictures and phone numbers to the Preventive Security Force,” Nawi is heard saying in reference to the Palestinian Authority’s counterintelligence arm.
“The Palestinian Authority catches them and kills them.
But before it kills them, they get beat up a lot.”
The footage was obtained by the Ad Kan organization, which employed a group of Israelis who posed as far-left activists in order to infiltrate Israeli human rights NGOs working in the West Bank.
Later in the program, Uvda asserted that an unidentified activist from B’Tselem aided Nawi in setting up a sting operation in which a prospective Palestinian seller would be arrested.
The report led to collective outrage, culminating with a Facebook posting by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who asserted that it “unmasked radicals among us, whose hatred for settlements has pushed them over the edge to the point of delivering innocents for torture and execution. Those who encourage murder cannot continue to hide behind the hypocritical pretense of caring for human rights.”
Hours after the fire, B’Tselem’s director, Hagai El-Ad, said in an Army Radio interview that regardless of the cause of the blaze, his organization is nonetheless being targeted by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Justice Ministry.
During the Monday morning broadcast, El-Ad claimed that the government is facilitating a “harsh and dangerous atmosphere of incitement against human rights activists, and especially people and organizations working for human rights in the West Bank.”
Meanwhile, Nawi was arrested by police at Ben-Gurion International Airport on Monday as he attempted to leave the country amid an investigation by the special investigative unit of the Judea and Samaria police on suspicion of conspiracy to commit a crime.
JTA contributed to this report.