Netanyahu Blasts Critics Who Suggested His Incitement Caused Fire at B'Tselem

Although arson was initially suspected in fire at the human rights group's offices, an electrical short is now thought to be the cause.

A forensic team outside the offices of the human rights organization B'Tselem in Jerusalem, January 11, 2016.
Nir Hasson

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had harsh criticism for his critics on the left who, when arson was initially thought likely, suggested that he had fostered a climate of incitement that led to a Jerusalem fire on Sunday evening at the offices of the B'Tselem human rights group.

Although initial reports suggested that arson was suspected in the blaze, the Jerusalem fire department later concluded that the fire was caused by an electrical short. The fire caused major damage the offices of B'Tselem, which was founded to expose Israeli human rights abuses in the territories. The organization's offices were unoccupied at the time, but one person elsewhere in the building was treated for smoke inhalation.

"Our adversaries immediately rushed to issue condemnations even before the flames were put out and before fire investigators had gotten to the scene," Netanyahu told his Likud Knesset faction on Sunday.

"Knesset members and heads of organizations on the left chose to single me and the national camp out as directly responsible for arson," the prime minister said. "Okay, I don't know if there was arson there. All signs point to it being an electrical short, but it could be that they will also accuse me of the electrical short. I wouldn't be surprised at the possibility."

Netanyahu has come under criticism for what has been seen as anti-Arab rhetoric, notably including his comments on Election Day last March urging his supporters to turn out to vote and warning that Arab voters were voting "in droves."  

In his comments to his Knesset faction, Netanyahu surveyed the threats that the country has been facing from terrorist attacks, and then accused the opposition of "chatter" and of mounting a public relations campaign.

"In any event, all of this mudslinging and lies will not stop me and us from continuing to lead the determined and persistent battle against terrorism," the prime minister said.

Israeli human rights groups have come in for criticism from the right, in part over allegations that many of them received foreign government funding. A bill that would require groups that get over half of their funding from foreign governments to disclose it in some contexts is currently pending in the Knesset and has received the support of the coalition. Opponents of the bill say it unfairly targets left-wing organizations. The human rights groups have also been stigmatized by some on the political right wing.