Israel Must Compensate Historic Galilee Church for Arson, Attorney General Says

Two 'hilltop youth' from the West Bank settler outposts are currently standing trial for attack on Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes.

Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel
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The Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes, following the June, 2015 arson attack.
The Church of the Multiplication of Loaves and Fishes, following the June, 2015 arson attack.Credit: Gil Eliyahu
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel

The state must compensate the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes for the arson attack against it in June, Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein has decided.

Two “hilltop youth” from the West Bank settler outposts are currently standing trial for this attack, and there are three other suspects.

The church, located in Tabgha on the shores of Lake Kinneret, had originally applied to the Israel Tax Authority for compensation. But two weeks ago, the authority rejected its request, saying the property tax law only authorizes state compensation for attacks perpetrated due to the Arab-Israeli conflict, whereas the indictment in the church arson case says the assailants were motivated by religious hostility to Christianity.

The church then asked the authority to reconsider, and this time, the authority asked Weinstein to make a decision on the issue.

In a letter to the tax authority’s legal adviser, Deputy Attorney General Avi Licht wrote that he had reviewed both the indictment and an opinion drafted by the Shin Bet security service regarding the ideological motives for the attack. While neither would constitute proof in a criminal case, they are sufficient for an administrative decision, he said.

“With the attorney general’s concurrence, my opinion is that the church should be compensated for the damage it suffered as a result of the arson, in accordance with the property tax regulations. The property tax law was intended to compensate damage caused to property, inter alia, by ‘other hostile actions against Israel’ or by violent activity whose primary purpose was to cause injury ‘on account of national-ethnic affiliation, as long as it stems from the Israeli-Arab conflict,’” Licht wrote., quoting provisions of the law on compensating victims of enemy activity.“From the aforesaid material, it appears that the arson attack was founded on an ideological infrastructure whose principal source was the Israeli-Arab conflict,” the letter continued. Father Matthias of the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes told Haaretz he had heard the news from one of the heads of the church. “I think this is the only way,” he said. “From the start we were told we would be compensated. We were surprised when they decided not to compensate. It’s heartening that they changed their mind.”

Following President Reuven Rivlin’s visit to the church about a month ago, a spokesman for the Benedictine monastery in Tabgha told Haaretz that property tax assessors had estimated the damage to the church at about seven million shekels ($1.8 million).

The local conference of Catholic bishops welcomed Weinstein’s decision to compensate the church.

“While we’re happy to hear about this just decision and hope it will be implemented in the near future, we ask the Israeli authorities to provide just solutions to all [outstanding] issues, including that of the Christian schools, which are still awaiting a just solution despite more than 20 days of being on strike to protest the budget cut the Education Ministry imposed on them,” it added in a press statement.

While other schools in Israel opened on September 1, the church schools still haven’t begun the academic year, saying the budget cuts made it financially impossible for them to function. Some 30,000 students, mostly Christian and Muslim Arabs, attend these schools.

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