Israel Fire: Police Deny Claims That Blazes Were Caused by 'Terrorism'

In a dispute with tax authorities proposing state compensation for fire victims, police say it has not yet been determined which if any of last week's fires were caused by arson.

A fire in Haifa on November 24, 2016.
A fire in Haifa on November 24, 2016. Credit: Gil Eliahu

Israel's police denied claims that the fires that destroyed hundreds of homes in the country last week were a result of "pyro-terrorism," despite claims by some members of the government, putting them in dispute with Israel's national tax authority.

The brewing conflict involves determining which of the victims may be eligible for state compensation. The tax authority has already published a list of locations where fire damage will be compensated, stating that it had determined with certainty that these fires were set for nationalist, or terrorist, motives.

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The police and firefighters are denying the tax authority's claims. They insist there is no certainty that political or nationalist motives were to blame for any of these fires.

Police say some of the cases are still under investigation. “We cannot compete with the remarks of politicians talking about compensation,” a police source said.

For instance, in the fire in Nataf, a community near Jerusalem, bottles filled with flammable materials were found but there is no other indication of arson, and no suspects.

On Monday, officials said that out of the total 1,773 reported fires, centered largely in and around Jerusalem and Haifa, 25 were suspected arson.

Credit: Elements

If a fire was started due to criminal activity, victims with private insurance may claim compensation for the damage, up to 150,000 shekels. But in the event of a fire set for nationalist motives, the property tax authority would be cover the loss and the compensation would amount to much less than the actual value of the belongings.

Senior Treasury officials said the head of police intelligence, Meni Yitzhaki, told property tax officials on Sunday that it was possible to ascertain that certain blazes were set for nationalist motives. The tax authority said that based on this information and additional conversations, they had drawn up a list of fire victims who were affected by arson terror.

But police and firefighter authorities say that making such a determination before the conclusion of the investigation could be problematic. They say some residents, fearing inadequate compensation, are already threatening to appeal to the High Court of Justice to reveal how it was determined that their home was damaged by "pyro-terrorism."

Twenty-nine suspected arsonists are currently in custody, 13 of them Palestinians from the West Bank and 16 Arab Israelis, including six minors.

Several Palestinians arrested by IDF forces over the weekend were released on Monday. Security forces didn't provide an exact number or specify the what they were suspected of.

Five suspects have been questioned about fires in Haifa and all have been released. Three suspects held for suspected arson in the Israeli Arab town of Basmat Tivon near Haifa were released from custody on Tuesday on 5,000 shekel bail apiece.

Police told Haaretz that no one has been arrested in connection with the fire in Zichron Yaakov, though arson is still suspected. Arson is believed to be behind fires that broke out in three other places in northern Israel, police said.

No arrests have been reported for the fire that destroyed 17 homes in the West Bank settlement of Halamish, and which has been ruled preliminarily as arson. Three Palestinians were arrested on Tuesday for setting a fire elsewhere in the West Bank.

Firefighters have said that at least 13 fires in the West Bank were set deliberately, including the one in Halamish, two in the area of Dolev and another in the Talmon area. Other suspected cases of arson are also under investigation.

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