Arsonists Menacing Water Facilities in Northern Israel. Where Are the Police?

Fifteen sewage treatment plants were torched in recent years, mostly for suspected protection rackets. The police tell corporations to hire security guards

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Arsonists start a fire at a sewage pump in Zarzir, 2018.
Arsonists start a fire at a sewage pump in Zarzir, 2018.
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

The burnt smell surrounding the water pumping facility in the village of Zarzir is particularly strong againt the backdrop of the pastoral landscape of the green valley spreading beneath the village homes.

Almost a year has passed since the previous arson attack against the facility, which was preceded by another six instances of destruction, break-ins or arson. The local water company has already stopped counting the number of times when fuel was stolen from the site.

Nor do facility officals bother to turn to the police for every such incident. “There’s no point,” says an executive in the regional water corporation, who fears disclosing his name. They have also given up on nonessential repairs there. The sewage pump operates in rudimentary fashion after the control panel responsible for monitoring and transmitting data was burned up.

The company started posting a night security guard in September 2018, but that didn’t help either. Anonymous assailants shot the guard in the leg and set the facility on fire in November. Nobody was prosecuted for the incident. “These are national assets; the sewage flows from here to a tributary of Tzippori stream,” says the senior executive in despair. “In the end, water belonging to all of us is polluted. But the Arab community is exterritorial.”

The arsonists, captured by security camera at the Zarzir water facility.

The case of Zarzir represents a growing phenomenon of deliberate sabotage of water facilities in Arab and Bedouin communities, another manifestation of crime in the Arab community. The police throw their hands up. In the past three years alone, 15 water and sewage facilities in the north were set on fire. In most cases, the suspicion is that the arsonists meant to pressure the companies into posting their own people as guards as part of a protection racket.

The motivation in repeatedly sabotaging the Zarzir facility is apparently somewhat different – to enable continued employment of owners of vacuum trucks, which pump out the sewage from the pits and deliver it to the treatment facilities. The most recent fire last month took place at a pump located near the village of Akbara. That facility is responsible for pumping sewage in the Safed region. Apparently, two organizations who wanted to take over security at the site were quarreling. A week after the fire, the water corporation received a letter quoting a price for guarding the facility.

Last September, hundreds of thousands of shekels that were invested in the state-of-the-art pump and control panel in the sewage pumping station near the village of Ibillin in the Upper Galilee went up in flames. But that wasn’t the only damage caused by the arsonists; the village’s sewage flowed to the inoperative station for an entire day, and from there continued on to the nearby olive grove.

In that case, there was no demand for payment or for posting security guards. Rather, it is suspected that the arson was part of a conflict that erupted between village residents and the local council. The landlords affected by the sewage spill are expected to submit a civil lawsuit against the water corporation. Yet, there have been no suspects or indictments.

The head of the Ibillin local council, Sheikh Ahmad Mamun, believes the phenomenon is yet another sign of the lack of government engagement in Arab society. “If the sewage infiltrates the groundwater, in the end all of us, both Jews and Arabs, will drink this water,” he says. “There are huge costs and environmental destruction.”

Mamun says that sabotaging water infrastructure in order to receive payment for security guards happens in almost every Israeli Arab community. “Every pump and pipe means repairs costing millions, which in the end undercut service,” he explains. “The government must come to grips with these problems. Now it’s water, but they’re trying also to take over community garbage collection, and the government is absent.”

The fact is that there has not been a single indictment filed for arson or the destruction of a pumping facility to this day. A document the police sent to a water company in the north in 2019, demanding that the company place its own guards around the Zarzir pumping facilities, illustrates its helplessness in dealing with the situation.

“Our experience indicates a fear of more arson incidents,” writes an officer from the Migdal Ha’emek police station. “Under these circumstances, we repeat our demand that the stations in Zarzir must be secured around the clock by a certified guard. The pumping stations must be covered by visible and hidden security cameras and peripheral lighting.” After listing a series of further demands, the officer sums up: “We for our part will increase patroling at the site and will take measures to deal with the problem.”

The last time the police made a genuine attempt to make headway was in late 2019, when the subject came up at a meeting headed by the commander of the Northern District, Shimon Lavi. According to the Mekorot national water company, Commander Lavi said at the meeting, “The facilities are government symbols and it’s our responsibility to protect them.” A few weeks later five arson suspects were arrested, but no indictments followed.

At least three water companies in the Northern District were forced in recent years to post guards at several of their facilities, costing tens of thousands of shekels per month. “Security guard costs undermine our financial ability to connect local communities to the sewage system and to provide service to consumers,” says an executive in a water company in the north, who is also afraid to speak in his own name. “And that’s without even mentioning the environmental damage from the sewage spilling into the aquifer or surrounding environs.”

He said that some of the facilities are now operated “primitively,” meaning without a control panel and monitoring. “The advantage is that because it’s not hooked up, the Iranians can’t hack the system,” he adds cynically. The need for guards also hampers the operation of new facilities, as happened near the Bedouin community of Bir al-Maksur. Messages regarding the need to post guards sparked a spat between the regional water corporation and the contractor operating the facilities, delayng its operation.

The generator room that was torched at the Zarzir water facility, last week.Credit: Rami Shllush

The CEO of a water company in the north, where five pumping stations have been torched in the recent years, doesn’t mince his words. “It’s a cancer that’s becoming increasingly malignant and has reached insane dimensions,” he says. He notes his company has never received a direct demand to hire a security firm. But, “I’ll tell you how it works,” he says. “They start a fire the first time, so you go to an insurance company. The second time, the insurance company increases your deductable and demands that you post a guard. If you hire the right guard everything is fine, but if not – they start a fire again until you bring the person they want.”

When asked if he was able to find the right guard, he replies that he refuses on principle to post a guard on facilities under the local council’s jurisdiction. “I don’t think we have to pay in Israel for someone to guard a water facility’s electricity room,” he says. “It’s true the water belongs to all of us, but who cares? The government doesn’t care. There are good policemen here who are working on it day and night but it ends there.”

He points to the Bedouin village of Tuba Zangaria as the source of the arson. “However, I have no proof in hand because to this day they haven’t prosecuted anyone,” he adds. “It’s very frustrating to see that aside from expressions of sympathy, the government isn’t doing a thing.”

The problem is not limited to the north. There is a sewage treatment plant near Shoket Junction in the Negev that flows from the Hebron region. Sawdust from Palestinian industrial areas gets mixed in. The Hura municipality maintained the facility until last June, but then it was transferred to a local water corporation, which began to receive demands to post guards.

“We have information about a Negev family that makes a living from providing security and so-called ‘operation’ of the place,” says Danny Lacker, head of the Water Authority’s Water Security Emergency and Cyber Division. “They wanted to ensure that they would continue doing the job, despite the change in administration.” Lacker says the authority was forced to post guards at the site from a security firm in the north.

“We paid hundreds of thousands of shekels for the same level of security as the atomic reactor, because if such a facility doesn’t operate, the raw sewage with the sawdust from Hebron’s marble plants will flow toward Be’er Sheva and from there via the stream to the sea. The environmental damage in such a case would be huge.”

Lacker says that shortly after the security company started guarding the facility, the reaction came – in the guise of attempts to cut the fence, a demonstration in front of the new guards and repeated requests to corporation executives “to be included in the security.”

There are about 5,000 water and sewage facilities spread throughout the country – pumping stations, wells, drilling stations, pools and five desalination plants. The Water Authority, which is nervously keeping track of events, supervises them all. In light of the many acts of sabotage, it plans to coat some facilities with fire-retardant substances against future fires.

The Zarzir water treatment facility, showing signs of arson, last week.Credit: Rami Shllush

“It’s a strategic national problem,” says Water Authority CEO Giora Shaham. “The phenomenon of damaging water and sewage facilities is gradually expanding. If we don’t act now, it will damage the country’s water system.” Shaham says he refuses to bear security costs. “It’s simply surrendering to crime, and it’s not our job to guard … Acknowledging security costs will likely raise water costs.”

Meanwhile, the water companies are also forced to hire security services to avoid problems with the Environmental Protection Ministry. “The moment that a pumping facility isn’t working, we’re talking about sewage that simply flows to the streams,” says Dorit Zis, the Environmental Protection Ministry’s Northern District head.

“Any damage, for example to the Beit Zarzir facilities, leads to a situation in which nearby Tzippori stream is frequently filled with sewage. Then we’re talking about land pollution infiltrating the groundwater, about pests transmitting diseases to humans – not to mention bad odors that greatly affect the residents’ quality of life.”

The water companies, for their part, complain about unforgiving ministry inspectors, who hasten to investigate them for floods caused by the fires. Zis adds: “It’s the responsibility of the corporations or the local authority to avoid harming the environment. They have to do everything they can to prevent harm to infrastructure, even if it means paying for security and cameras.”

The police commented: “The Israel Police works constantly, overtly and covertly, to expose and fight crimes of extorting protection money. Much of this work is the result of high-quality police intelligence. Whenever a crime of damaging infrastructure is suspected, the police investigate thoroughly to discover the truth and find the perpetrators.

"Such work was also done in the incidents described, leading the police to open an investigation. We note that thanks to police operations in the past year, 83 suspects were arrested and 103 indictments were filed against extortion suspects in the Northern District alone. We will continue to act with determination and to invest most of our efforts and the means at our disposal to fight criminals in the region.”

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