3 Palestinians accused of arson in November West Bank fire

Men indicted for blaze that destroyed homes at Halamish settlement; indictment doesn’t allege terror or ‘nationalistic motives’

Fire burning in the West Bank settlement of Halamish on November 26, 2016 (Israel Fire and Rescue Services)
Fire burning in the West Bank settlement of Halamish on November 26, 2016 (Israel Fire and Rescue Services)

Three Palestinian men were formally accused on Sunday of starting a fire outside of the central West Bank settlement of Halamish in November that destroyed 17 homes and damaged 25 others. The incident came during a wave of blazes across Israel that was described as an “arson intifada” at the time, although police have so far filed only a handful of indictments in connection with them.

According to the Israel Fire and Rescue Services, there were hundreds of fires nationwide during the nearly week-long span of blazes, of which 39 were considered major. The fires were fueled by unseasonably dry weather and strong winds.

Despite claims by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan during the outbreak of fires countrywide that the blazes were deliberate terrorism, no one has yet been charged with starting the fires with such motives.

Sunday’s indictment charged Muatasem Mahmud Yusef Zahran, Salem Othman Salem Zahran and Ahad Issa Yusef Zahran, all from the Palestinian village of Deir Abu Mashal, with arson, malicious damage to property, disturbing public order and damaging protected nature, making no mention of terrorism or nationalistic motives.

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According to the indictment, the three defendants met on the night of November 25 in Deir Abu Mashal, then purchased some alcohol. After they drank some of the beer they had purchased, they decided to set out for Halamish in order to start a fire in the settlement.

Upon arriving outside of Halamish, Muatasem Zahran and Ahad Zahran exited the vehicle and started a fire in the shrubs using pieces of toilet paper, while Salem Zahran waited in the car with the motor on. After the fire began to spread, they sped off in the direction of the Palestinian village of Deir Nizam.

When they arrived at the entrance to Deir Nizam, the three men saw an IDF jeep, and decided to drive to Wadi Zarqa nearby in order to drink more beers. They then returned to Deir Nizam, from where they watched the fire in Halamish before returning home.

The West Bank settlement of Halamish (photo credit: Miriam Alster/Flash90)
The West Bank settlement of Halamish (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Both Muatasem Zahran and Salem Zahran were arrested on December 28, while Ahad Zahran was arrested on December 12. The indictment did not specify under what circumstances they were arrested.

According to the indictment, the damage caused to the homes in Halamish and the possessions within them amounted to over NIS 25 million ($6.5 million). The indictment also said that over 76 vehicles were needed to quell the flames, including six firefighting planes, and that it took 100 firefighters nearly four days to extinguish the blaze.

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