3 injured in arson attack against foreign workers

Jerusalem fire brigade: 50 residents were caught in ‘death trap’ that could easily have ended in tragedy.

Anti-migrant spraypaint 370 (photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
Anti-migrant spraypaint 370
(photo credit: Melanie Lidman)
The violent backlash against foreign workers that has been focused on south Tel Aviv struck Jerusalem early Monday morning, after an arsonist attempted to burn down a building housing 50 foreign workers in the downtown area.
Three people were injured in the blaze with minor burns on their arms and legs while attempting to escape the building. The perpetrator also spray-painted “Get out of the neighborhood!” on the wall outside the building, located at 88 Jaffa Road next to the Mahaneh Yehuda market.
According to Jerusalem Fire and Rescue Services spokesman Asaf Abras, the fire started around 3 a.m. in the hallway of the building, when the arsonist attempted to break into the first floor apartment.
The arsonist emptied gas on the stairwell and set it on fire, creating tall flames that filled the stairwell, police said.
The three injuries occurred in the bottom floor apartment, where 10 people lived in a number of rooms with a shared kitchen. Due to the intense flames, several people on the upper floors were trapped and could not exit the building.
The fire blackened the entire first floor of the apartment and the stairwell on the first two floors. Handprints were still visible in the soot, illustrating how residents tried to escape down the stairs.
Abras called the fire “a death trap” and warned that the outcome could have easily been tragic. The three injured people were brought to Shaare Zedek Medical Center and released later that morning.
Due to the graffiti and other materials found at the site of the blaze, fire investigators are nearly certain it was arson. The location of the fire in the ground floor hallway also revealed that the intent was to kill or seriously injure the workers rather than scare them.
Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat slammed the attack, and instructed Jerusalem Police Chief Nisso Shaham to “act with a strong hand” against any violence of this type in the city.
Shaham responded by creating a special investigative unit to determine who is behind the attack. Jerusalem police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby said that nine police officers will work on the investigation.
Some months ago there was a similar arson attack, also on Jaffa Road closer to Zion Square, in a building that was home to many African migrants. Firefighters responded quickly and there were no injuries.
Molo, a Sudanese worker who lived in the building, said he was awakened around 2:30 a.m. by the fire. The building currently has no electricity and residents are being forced to sleep at friends’ homes across the city, he added.
Despite Barkat’s condemnation, a municipality spokesman said the city’s social service and welfare branch was not offering any help to the residents, including temporary living arrangements. Additionally, the city’s graffiti removal unit did not clean the building as of press time.
In previous “price-tag” attacks against Christians and Arabs, the graffiti removal unit cleared offensive graffiti in an hour or two.
A South Korean couple who live on the top floor of the building said on Monday they had been in their apartment for eight years and had no problems with anyone in the neighborhood. The couple said they had no idea why anyone would target their building, home mostly to workers from Sudan, Ethiopia and Eritrea.
An Israeli neighbor who refused to give her name confirmed that aside from a few disagreements about loud music late at night or on Shabbat, there were no conflicts between the foreign workers and the largely haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighborhood of Mekor Baruch.
“It’s very quiet here, I have no issues with them,” said the woman. “But this [arson attack] doesn’t solve any problems, it’s not okay.”
The woman added that the arsonists probably targeted the building because it is the only one in the area that is home to exclusively foreign workers. Many foreign workers live in the area around the Mahaneh Yehuda market – but in apartments mixed with other Israelis.
Condemnation for the attack was muted and slow in coming.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said in a statement, “There is no justification for such a heinous crime that puts people’s lives in harm’s way. Law and ethics prohibit any injury to the other, the guest and the foreigner. Jewish history compels us to take exceptional caution on these matters.”
The Bright Tag anti-racism coalition is planning a demonstration against the arson attack for 5 p.m. on Tuesday in Davidka Square. A number of concerned Jerusalemites also dropped off food and other donations for the building residents.
Violent attacks against African migrants were previously concentrated in south Tel Aviv, where a number of people were arrested for throwing Molotov cocktails at apartments housing Africans, or pelting Africans on the street with eggs. Tensions are simmering after anti-African riots that were held over the past two weeks, and the district attorney charged 10 minors on Thursday with racially motivated attacks on African migrants and their property.