Police: It’s too soon to tell which fires were arson
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Police: It’s too soon to tell which fires were arson

In response to assessment by state officials that blazes in 9 areas were deliberately set, police say investigations ongoing

A state official inspects the damage at the remains of Nafat restuarant Rama's Kitchen following a wildfire, on November 28, 2016. (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A state official inspects the damage at the remains of Nafat restuarant Rama's Kitchen following a wildfire, on November 28, 2016. (Photo by Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel Police on Tuesday said it was too early to determine how many of the hundreds of wildfires that spread across the country last week were the result of arson and possible terrorism, in response to an earlier assessment by the Israel Tax Authority that specified that blazes in nine locales were deliberately set in nationalistically motivated attacks.

In a move that paves the way for state compensation for losses, the authority stated that fires in nine Israeli cities and West Bank settlements were “caused by intentional arson with reasonable suspicion of terrorist activities.”

But police later on Tuesday said it was too early to know

“It’s still to early to rule nationalistic motives,” police officials told Channel 10. “Yes, there were incidents of arson, but nationalistic motives are far from being definitively concluded.”

“If it emerges that a Jew started some of the fires in an effort to direct blame on Arabs — and there have been several such incidents — then people can wait a little longer,” officials said.

The Tax Authority stood by its assessment, telling the TV channel in response that the list published earlier on Tuesday was complied in accordance with the police investigation.

“For the last four days we have been in contact with Meni Yithaki and other top officials connected to the investigation,” the Authority said, noting that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Police chief Roni Alsheich and Public Security minister Gilad Erdan have all spoken of arsonists with nationalistic motives.

According to the Tax Authority’s list, fires in hard-hit Haifa, the town of Zichron Ya’akov, Tal-El, Nataf, as well as the West Bank settlements of Dolev, Gilon, Talmon, Nirit and Halamish (Neve Tzuf) were all were caused by arson and may have constituted terrorism.

“From information received by the Tax Authority, the Israel Police and the Fire and Rescue Services commission, it has been determined that the fires in these locations were caused by intentional arson with reasonable suspicion of terrorist activities,” the authority’s Tuesday morning statement said.

Normally, losses caused by wildfires are only covered for those who took out extra insurance — an additional monthly payment of around 50 shekels (15 dollars) on top of general property insurance — that covers unlikely events such as natural disasters and plane crashes into buildings. Financial losses suffered from blazes in those nine locales are now defined as “war damages” and are therefore covered by an emergency state fund for victims of terror, the statement added.

While authorities say some fires were likely started by negligence and then bolstered by arson, the Tax Authority announcement means that any damages suffered in the listed locations will be included in state reparations, regardless of whether the specific fire that damaged private property was set intentionally.

In total, 1,773 fires were dealt with by authorities from November 18 to November 26, according to the Fire and Rescue Services spokesman. Police say they suspect several dozen were started by arsonists.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has approved a stipend of NIS 2,500 ($650) per person for those who cannot return to their homes because they were destroyed or are currently uninhabitable, but Knesset members are urging the government to pay full compensation to all victims, regardless of whether the damage was caused by arson or not.

At an emergency Knesset Finance Committee session on Monday, MKs from across the political spectrum called on the Finance Ministry to cover the additional compensation for citizens without insurance, even if they don’t live in those nine locations.

Authorities estimate that some 130,000 dunams (32,124 acres) were destroyed in the blazes, approximately 30 percent more than the 2010 Carmel fire in which 44 people were killed. Haifa officials said fires ravaged some 28,000 dunams (6,900 acres) of land in the city alone. At least 60,000 of the city’s residents were evacuated Thursday while firefighters battled to contain a blaze that had entered a dozen of the city’s neighborhoods from the nearby Carmel Forest.

In all, at least 35 people have been arrested since Thursday in connection with the fires but police have not indicated how many were suspected of setting fires and how many of inciting others to do so.

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