Analysis

Despite Netanyahu's Claim, Still No Evidence of 'Terrorist Arson' in Israel Fires

Recent report concluded that almost 90 percent of the fires in November 2016 were set deliberately, but a closer look at the facts casts doubt on those claims.

Firefighters helps extinguish a new fire that broke out in the Israeli town of Nataf, west of the Arab Israeli town of Abu Ghosh, along the border with the West Bank on November 25, 2016
AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP

Two months have passed since Israel was hit by a wave of fires. And despite numerous right-wing politicians – from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on down – insisting that the fires were politically motivated acts of terrorism, there is still no evidence that a mass wave of arson took place.

Last week, the daily Maariv said a report by the firefighting services concluded that 71 of the country’s 80 fires did indeed stem from acts of arson. But a closer look reveals that this report contains no evidence to back its claim.

Haaretz repeatedly asked spokespeople for both the firefighting services and the Public Security Ministry for copies of their investigative reports, or at least additional information about their investigations into the fires – to no avail. The latest such request was submitted last Sunday.

The report cited by Maariv is nothing but a PowerPoint presentation comprising 39 slides. It includes maps, aerial photographs and other materials. Among other things, there are two aerial photographs showing how the fire that spread from the northern Israeli village of Nahf toward the towns of Halutz and Harashim actually began in three separate spots. Ostensibly, this is ironclad proof of arson. But comparing these photographs to an area map shows that all three spots are actually much closer to Nahf (a Muslim Arab village) than to the Jewish towns. Nahf residents were even evacuated due to the fire.

Several slides are devoted to orderly stacks of tree branches that the report dubbed “arson devices.” According to the firefighting services, these stacks prove someone prepared them in advance with the intent to commit arson. But this claim makes no sense.

Haifa Fire
Gil Eliyahu

First, given the extremely dry weather at the time, there was no need for any prior preparation. Just tossing a match or burning cigarette would easily have been enough to ignite a fire.

Second, it’s not clear why arsonists would take the risk of creating these stacks, since that would have required them to visit the scene of the crime twice.

Strangest of all, however, is that in the picture of one such stack – near Jerusalem’s Ein Karem neighborhood – purple strings are clearly visible tied to the branches, as if someone had decorated them. In fact, such stacks are routinely built by youth groups or other children during outings in the forest. Even while the fires were still raging, pictures of a similar stack in Hazorea Forest were published; that stack was later identified as part of a child’s game.

The slides include several maps, plus a list of the fires. But the number of fires listed as being started by arson (45) doesn’t match the number given at the start of the presentation (71). And the arson cases on the maps don’t match those on the list, either.

Whoever prepared the maps covered the site of each fire with a big red star, making it impossible to determine its exact location. But if you remove the stars (the presentation was sent in a way that makes this possible), you see tiny flags marking the exact locations.

Israel fire: Israeli firefighter in Beit Mier, near Jerusalem, extinguishes brush fire. November 25, 2016
Photo: Oliver Fitoussi

This makes it possible to see that the fires listed as arson include fires near the following Arab towns: Shfaram, Tamra, Jdeideh, Bir al-Maksur, Nahf, Umm al-Fahm and Nazareth. And there was more than one fire in some of those places. Those are hardly logical locations for “terrorist arson” attacks.

On the other hand, the map of arson near the West Bank separation barrier is very convincing: It seems some of the fires inside Israel were caused by firebombs hurled over the fence. For instance, this was almost certainly the case for the second fire near Nataf (near Jerusalem), even though the film footage that ostensibly shows the firebomb being thrown hasn’t been made public.

The presentation includes a picture of fragments of a Molotov cocktail on the barrier near Nataf. But it’s impossible to know whether this is the firebomb that actually caused the fire, since firebombs are also routinely thrown at security vehicles on the road near the fence.

It’s quite possible that similar incidents caused fires at other places near the fence: Horshim Junction, Modi’in Ilit and Modi’in.

The fire in the West Bank settlement of Halamish, which caused extensive damage to homes there, also began at two separate places on the security road near the settlement, the presentation says. If so, it’s reasonable to conclude that it was arson.

Arson suspect Katosh as seen trying to set fire to brush near the West Bank town of Battir on Saturday, November 26, 2016.
Israel Nature and Parks Authority

The presentation also includes three frames taken from security camera footage. Of these, at least two were taken from internet news sites that had previously published them.

One, from the Ynet site, was titled “Arson attempt near Ariel” in the slide show. It shows three people getting out of a car near the village of Iskaka (next to Ariel), and walking past a particular place, after which a fire erupts.

This certainly could be arson. Yet the presentation doesn’t explain why, according to the footage, it took the alleged arsonists a mere 20 seconds on foot to reach their village. Why would they start a fire so close to their own homes?

The second frame, taken near Savyon Junction, was labeled, “A person running from the field at the time of the blaze.” Truly, very suspicious. For some reason, somebody added a slide of a man standing near the flames. Perhaps because he was wearing a keffiyeh?

The huge fire in Haifa isn’t mentioned at all in the presentation. The firefighting services said it is still under investigation.

Fires burn in the horizon as firefighters battle a fire that broke out in the Israeli town of Nataf, west of the Arab Israeli town of Abu Ghosh, on November 25, 2016.
Ahmad Gharabli, AFP

The presentation does list the fire in Zichron Yaakov as arson, saying a sniffer dog found signs of gasoline at the place where it originated.

I certainly wouldn’t claim there were no acts of arson; as noted, the map of fires near the security barrier was quite convincing. But to this day, two months after the fires, the Israeli public hasn’t yet seen any convincing evidence that they were acts of terrorist arson – as both Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan termed them.

And in particular, there’s no evidence that Israeli Arabs were involved in setting any of them. Last week, the final suspected arsonist – an Umm al-Fahm resident who set fire to a trash pile near his home to protest the municipality’s ineffectiveness – was released from jail. There are a few suspects who aren’t under arrest, but none of them is suspected of terrorist arson. A spokesperson for the police’s Northern District said there are no longer any open arson investigations.

In contrast to the very ambiguous evidence of arson, there is clear-cut evidence of fires being started by accident or negligence. For instance, the first fire in Nataf was started by the negligence of workers who were making coffee; the fire in Neveh Shalom was started by teens smoking a bong, and the fire in Beit Meir was started by policemen shooting off a flare.

The presentation opens with several slides describing the extreme weather conditions that prevailed in Israel at the time. It noted that by late November, the country had received only 4 percent of the average rainfall for that time of year. It also noted that the combination of extreme aridity and days of strong easterly winds created “dry, flammable vegetation in large quantities” and “a country sitting on a barrel of explosives.”

As with the Carmel Forest Fire of 2010, these rare climate conditions – coupled with large tracts of forest and protected vegetation – created a situation where the danger of fires was very high.

This slide would definitely be a good place to start a new conversation.