The Alei Shalechet crematorium, located on Moshav Hibat Tzion in the Sharon region, sustained major damage last night in a fire that police and firefighters believe was caused by arson.

Since its establishment two years ago, the crematorium has faced strong opposition, especially from ultra-Orthodox groups who are opposed to cremation.

A call came in at about 8:30 P.M. to the Netanya fire department about a large brush fire on the moshav. "On the way to the scene, we were told to hurry because there were large gas canisters nearby," firefighter Naftali Rokah told Haaretz yesterday,

Evidence of possible arson at the scene included signs of forced entry and tracks leading into the site. Firefighters extinguished the blaze within about an hour.

Alon Nativ, a partner in Alei Shalechet, arrived soon after the fire broke out. He told Haaretz that he complained to the police on Monday that Haredim were planning a demonstration at the site, whose location was recently discovered by the ZAKA rescue and recovery service. The location was publicized yesterday in Kol Ha'ir, a Haredi paper published in Bnei Brak. (The paper is separate from the Jerusalem weekly that is pronounced the same, but spelled differently in Hebrew).

Nativ said police did not respond quickly to his numerous complaints over the past two years. He also said he had received several threats to his life.

ZAKA head Yehuda Meshi Zahav denied any connection to the fire. "We have been struggling with them for a long time," he said. "They didn't have a license from the Health Ministry to operate, but the system did nothing despite the fact that the law permits burial only. When we discovered the site, Hibat Tzion residents told us that they had noticed a bad smell recently."

"I assume that after the release [of the photographs], there were people that couldn't ignore the desecration of the dead, and I applaud them," Meshi Zahav continued. "We saw the desecration there. The structure is located between two chicken coops. There were sheets soaked in blood and the ashes thrown in the garbage bin. The place was destined to burn, and it was burned."