Umm al-Fahm Man Gets Two Years for Burning Trash in Protest

The charge sheet did not ascribe any nationalist motives to the fires, but the Court noted that the extremely dry weather conditions and strong winds that day created great potential risk

A bushfire raging in the northern Israeli port city of Haifa, November 24, 2016
JACK GUEZ/AFP

A man from the northern Israeli city of Umm al-Fahm was sentenced to two years in prison Wednesday for burning piles of garbage in the city during a wave of fires in the country in November 2016.

Some of the fires in the wave, which destroyed hundreds of homes and thousands of acres of brush and forest, were thought to be deliberately set.

Ali Mahajneh, 27, attributed his actions to a dispute with the city and he expressed regret for them. The charge sheet did not ascribe any nationalist motives to the fires. He had no previous criminal record and is engaged to be married.

According to the court transcripts, Mahajneh told the probation services that in retrospect he understood the danger posed by his actions and had learned his lesson.

“The probation service determined that he committed his offense due to mistaken judgment and the defendant’s tendency to act without taking into account all the risks involved in his conduct,” the transcript says.

But despite this report, Judge Daniel Fisch of the Haifa District Court ruled that his acts had undermined public safety and security. “While in the end there was no damage to property, but given the extremely dry weather conditions and strong winds that blew that day there was great potential risk,” he wrote.

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This was no way to protest, Fisch added, saying that if he were to have fully accepted Mahajneh’s claim that he was trying to convey a message to the authorities, “This makes it worse, and we shouldn’t make it easier for him, since this is an invalid and dangerous form of protest that could quickly get out of control and have destructive and even fatal consequences.”

His two-year sentence was reduced by six weeks for time served. He was also given a suspended sentence of nine months and fined 20,000 shekels ($5,571).

Mahajneh was held for six weeks after his initial arrest. He was only released after he petitioned the High Court of Justice. He was charged in December 2016 with three counts of arson in his neighborhood. The fires he set spread and destroyed around three dunams (three-quarters of an acre) of trees. A number of neighbors were evacuated when smoke entered their homes. Mahajneh claimed he burned garbage that is never collected and disturbs the residents of the neighborhood, and that he had done so in the past, as do other residents of the neighborhood.

Mahajneh’s attorney, Ahmed Yunis, said he planned to appeal the sentence to the Supreme Court, saying it was severe given the circumstances.

“The clause relating to arson calls for up to 20 years’ imprisonment, but the question that has accompanied this case from the start is whether this was the right clause. We are used to the crimes of torching cars, stores, other people’s property, etc, either to harm them or as revenge. But in this case the accused burned garbage. True, the garbage isn’t his, but it’s absurd to convict him under this clause.”

Yunis noted, “It’s clear that the indictment was spurred by the atmosphere that prevailed during the period of fires in Haifa and when the public security minister and the prime minister, without waiting for the investigation results, used the term ‘terror by arson’ without asking themselves what Ali Mahajneh, a resident of Umm al-Fahm, had to do with such attacks.

Yunis asked rhetorically, “Was he also planning to burn Jews there?”