Israeli Sentenced to Four Years for Arson at Famed Galilee Roman Catholic Church

Yinon Reuveni was convicted of aggravated arson and vandalism; Shin Bet says he was a person of interest even before he set fire to the Church of the Multiplication

The graffiti sprayed by Yinon Reuveni on one of the walls of the Church of the Multiplication.
Gil Eliyahu

A 22-year-old former resident of the West Bank outpost of Baladim was sentenced to four years in prison after he was convicted of setting fire to the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes at Taghba on the Sea of Galilee in June 2015.

In sentencing the defendant, Yinon Reuveni, Nazareth Magistrate’s Court Judge Georges Azoulay also imposed two years’ probation and ordered him to pay 50,000 shekels ($14,100) in damages. The four-year sentence is to run from the time of Reuveni’s arrest.

The church, which was heavily damaged, was only 33 years old, but it was built on the same site as a first church built there more than 1,600 years ago. Reuveni was found guilty in June of the arson attack. A co-defendant, Yehuda Asraf, 21, who had been charged as an accomplice, was acquitted of all charges.

The indictment stated that Reuveni was filmed by a security camera at a gas station at Latrun, in the center of the country, filling a bottle with gasoline. The indictment alleged that he and Asraf headed toward the church in the north equipped with gloves, matches and a lighter.

“Contrary to what people think, the punishment [in the case] is not light,” said Reuveni’s lawyer, Itamar Ben Gvir. “We intend to appeal the sentence and the conviction. There was a series of mistakes,” he said, vowing to take the case to the Supreme Court if necessary.

Despite the sentence, Ben Gvir welcomed the fact that the judge had not acceded to the prosecution’s request for a nine-year sentence, and said that Judge Azoulay “had not been dragged along by the prosecution’s racism.” Reuveni was convicted of aggravated arson, vandalism and conspiracy to commit a crime, among other charges.

Reuveni was aware that there were security cameras at the entrance to the church and that the church gate closed automatically in the evening. He therefore left his car outside the gate and at 3:15 A.M. entered the church compound, poured the gasoline on the ground near the church and ignited it. He also spray-painted graffiti on a church door reading “for their idols shall be destroyed.” He then fled.

Yinon Reuveni at a court hearing on July 3, 2017.
Abdullah Shama

The Baladim West Bank outpost of which Reuveni is a former resident became a site of regular run-ins with Palestinians. The Shin Bet security service had described the defendant as a major person of interest, saying that he had also set out from the outpost with plans to set fire to mosques.