Despite Declarations, Israeli Cabinet Avoids Labeling Fires as Terrorist Acts

'Terror' definition would force state to compensate victims.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon in a burnt house in hard-hit Haifa, November 27, 2016.
Rami Shllush

The cabinet refrained on Sunday from declaring the fires that destroyed and damaged homes and other property in Israel last week as terrorist acts.

This was despite previous declarations by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and some of his cabinet colleagues that the fires – particularly in Haifa and Zichron Yaakov in the north, in the Jerusalem corridor and the West Bank settlement of Halamish – were “terrorism” that should be harshly punished.

If the fires are officially recognized as terrorism, it would have major economic implications, because the government would then be obliged to compensate people who suffered losses with reparations from the property tax department (“mas rehush” in Hebrew).

If the government refrains from making such a declaration, the compensation would come from insurance companies (for those who have coverage).

At this stage, the extent of the losses has been estimated in the hundreds of millions of shekels. The country’s insurance companies indicated Sunday that, among those with insurance, the damage amounted to 22 million shekels ($5.7 million), and that 500 claims for insurance compensation had already been received.

But it seems apparent from comments made by Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon on a tour of fire-damaged neighborhoods in Haifa Sunday that he believes the fires will be declared acts of terrorism. That would entitle those who have suffered losses to compensation from the state whether or not they had insurance policies to cover their homes and contents.

In the course of his tour, Kahlon spoke to a resident of the Romema neighborhood whose home was badly damaged by the blaze. Dvora Tropp, who is retired and lived in her home with her husband for some 30 years, told the finance minister she had no insurance coverage.

“The property tax department will compensate you for what happened here,” he promised, “and I assume that in the near-future you will receive the money in your [bank] account. You will get the full amount you’re entitled to, as estimated by the appraiser.”

In Haifa alone, 527 homes are known to have suffered major fire damage. Residents who cannot remain in their homes and need to find alternate accommodation, or to spend time in a hotel, will receive initial financial support from their local government and the property tax authority.

Although some arrests of suspected arsonists have been made, the professional staff at the relevant Finance Ministry offices has been careful not to label the fires the result of terrorist activities.

However, Kahlon told the Knesset Finance Committee that his ministry has decided to address everyone’s situation. “Afterward, we will receive the indications from all of the authorized agencies whether it was terrorism or intentional arson,” he said.

With reporting by Nimrod Bousso, Zvi Zrahiya, Asa Sasson and Moti Bassok.