Israel Treats 2016 Fire Outbreak as Terror Despite Lack of Evidence

There is no proof any of the fires were politically motivated; in some cases it was determined the fire was caused by negligence

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A fire in Haifa in 2016.
A fire in Haifa in 2016.Credit: Gil Eliahu
Noa Shpigel
Nir Hasson
Noa Shpigel
Nir Hasson

Israel has paid 227 million shekels ($64 million) in compensation for terror attacks to people affected by a large outbreak of fires in November 2016, despite there being no proof any of the arsons were driven by political motives.

The money came from a fund held by property tax authorities, usually used only in cases of people affected by war or acts of terror, even though in some cases it was determined that the fire was caused by negligence.

Haaretz has learned that the state has filed only five indictments related to the 2016 fires, in no case claiming that the arson was driven by political motives.

In a response to queries by Haaretz to the Tax Authority, it emerged that to date, 99 percent of the 2,762 claims have been settled. On average, claimants received 80,000 shekels ($22,500). According to Tax Authority figures, most of the claims, 2,321, were made in the Haifa area. Another 225 were made in Tel Aviv, 191 in Jerusalem and 25 in Tiberias. In response to a question filed by MK Yousef Jabareen (Joint List), the treasury replied that 52 claims were denied.

As a rule, compensation for damage caused by hostile acts is given only after an investigation by security forces determines that the damage was caused by war or an act of terror. In any other instance, when property is damaged by fire and the owner is uninsured, there is no compensation, unless the damaged party proves in court that the state was negligent.

The state has paid compensation in the past in cases in which property damage was unrelated to war or hostile acts. After the enormous Carmel fire in 2010 the state compensated people whose houses had burned down and who had no insurance. But the number of cases was small then, and the funds did not come from property tax coffers.

A fire in Haifa in 2016.
A fire in Haifa in 2016.Credit: Rami Shllush

The Justice Ministry responded recently to a question by Jabareen regarding the labeling of many of the fires as hostile acts even though there was no evidence for this. The ministry said, “The determination did not link the conditions required for granting compensation and the existence of parallel criminal proceedings. This was due to the difficulty in obtaining evidence in these cases, where many perpetrators were not brought to justice. Setting a high bar would counter the intention of the law.”

Subsequently, the Justice Ministry claimed that it directed the question to the Tax Authority, which stated that its decision regarding some of the fires was based on information received from the security forces. After thorough investigation, the Tax Authority determined that for compensation purposes the string of fires were part of a wave of arson incidents which was probably planned. Haaretz has learned that even in fires that were clearly not caused by arson, compensation was paid as if these were acts of terror. One example was a fire at Beit Meir near Jerusalem, which caused heavy damage to houses, warehouses, chicken coops and gardens. The fire was caused by a flare fired by a policewoman who had received warnings of unauthorized workers hiding in the village. Due to the dry conditions prevailing at the time, the flare ignited a fire that spread rapidly.

The dozens of fires that broke out in November 2016 caused heavy damage to property, requiring the evacuation of thousands of residents. As events were unfolding, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Minister for Public Security Gilad Erdan and other cabinet members pronounced it a wave of arson and terror acts, an “arson intifada.” A month later a report by firefighting services determined that most of the fires had been set deliberately. However, other than in a small number of cases, little evidence for this was produced.

Jabareen said that “declarations by the prime minister and members of his cabinet created an atmosphere of hostility and hatred towards the Arab public in Israel.” He added that “apparently it was convenient for all concerned to classify the fires as hostile acts, even when there was no proof of this.”

A fire in Haifa in 2016.
A fire in Haifa in 2016.Credit: Moti Milrod

Of the five indictments, one was filed in a military court in the territories against three suspects from the village of Deir Abu Mashal. They were accused of setting a fire that spread to the settlement of Halamish, causing serious damage there.

The other four indictments were filed in Israel. In one case a resident of Umm al-Fahm was charged for lighting a pile of trash near his house. Another was filed against three residents of Deir Hanna, who were accused of setting a fire near their town. Another case was filed against two youths, with the judge noting that this was probably a prank. In another case two residents of Umm al-Fahm were convicted. One of them was a minor. They were sentenced to 24 and 20 months in prison after being found guilty of setting a fire near Mei-Ami for no reason. The attorney who represented the minor said he took full responsibility for his actions. “It was a prank with no serious motive,” he said. “If this was a nationalist-motivated crime the sentence would have been harsher.”

The Tax Authority stated that in some of the cases there was evidence for arson or attempted arson. “Information in these cases was transferred to the Authority by security and firefighting services. According to the circumstances in these cases, it was determined that these were hostile acts. This was true in some cases in Haifa and Zichron Yaakov, as well as in other locations, allowing compensation to be given according to property tax laws. In Beit Meir the fire was caused by security forces operating against arsonists, which enabled the fire to be labeled as a hostile act which is eligible for compensation.”

A fire in Atlit in 2016.
A fire in Atlit in 2016.Credit: Rami Shllush