Blaze at B’Tselem offices was caused by electrical fault

Arson not to blame for fire; rights group’s director asserts ‘incitement’ is still a danger

Sue Surkes is The Times of Israel's environment reporter.

Firefighting teams work to put out a fire at the building where the offices of the human rights NGO B'Tselem are located, in Jerusalem on January 10, 2016. Police were investigating whether it was arson. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Firefighting teams work to put out a fire at the building where the offices of the human rights NGO B'Tselem are located, in Jerusalem on January 10, 2016. Police were investigating whether it was arson. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The fire that gutted the Jerusalem offices of the human rights group B’Tselem Sunday night was likely caused by an electrical fault, firefighters said Monday, all but ruling out assessments to the effect that the blaze was caused by an arson attack.

Later Monday, an investigation formally confirmed that an electrical fault was to blame.

“In light of an initial investigation being carried out by the special investigations team of [the] Jerusalem fire and rescue [service], we’re looking into a high probability option that the fire was started following a fault in the office’s electrical systems,” a spokesman for the fire brigade said.

The commander of the Jerusalem District Fire Brigade told Israel Radio that investigators were still awaiting the verdict of an electrical engineer, but that it was “reasonable to assume,” from the fact that the fire started in an acoustic ceiling, that the cause was an electrical short circuit. The electrical engineer later confirmed the fault.

Security camera footage that emerged Monday afternoon appeared to show the electrical short that caused the fire.

Moshe Lazari, a fire investigator, told the radio station that the possibility of an electrical short circuit was being looked at, although the investigation was ongoing and no definite conclusions had been reached.

Lazari said the investigative team had neither found graffiti nor smelled any inflammable material, clues that led police to the far-right perpetrators of an arson attack at the Hand in Hand Jewish-Arab school in Jerusalem in November 2014.

Police were waiting for the fire service’s official report before announcing their conclusions, a spokesman said.

“We are breathing freely again after the announcement of the fire services that in all likelihood there was an electrical short circuit,” B’Tselem said in a statement. “We’re going back to normal.”

Earlier reports said the speed with which the fire spread supported suspicions of arson.

B’Tselem first-floor offices were empty at the time of the fire and there were no injuries there. However, a cantor at a synagogue on the building’s fourth floor was taken to Hadassah Hospital in the Ein Kerem neighborhood. He suffered from smoke inhalation and his injuries were described as “very light.”

The fire began at 10.00 p.m. Sunday night. Acting Jerusalem Fire Brigade commander Eyal Cohen said six fire-fighting teams arrived with a crane to battle the blaze.

Police instructed the offices remain closed Monday until investigators had examined the premises, and a security officer was posted at the building’s entrance. Over recent months, amid ongoing threats, the entrance to the office had been guarded from time to time.

Late Sunday, when assessments still pointed at an arson attack, B’Tselem said that despite the incident, it would not be deterred.

“Naturally, the damage to our offices will not stop our work of documenting and exposing the harm to human rights under the occupation,” the group said in a statement.

B’Tselem Director Hagai El-Ad said Monday morning that, from pictures, he could see that the organization’s offices, and the adjacent offices of the Israel Antiquities Authority, had been heavily damaged. “I don’t want to speculate,” he said. “We will not say anything until the facts are clear.”

El-Ad told Army Radio that whether or not the fire turned out to have been caused by arson, there has been a “harsh and dangerous atmosphere of incitement against human rights activists and especially people and organizations working for human rights in the [West Bank].”

While criticism was legitimate, he continued, and his organization welcomed any opportunity to conduct a “substantive debate,” organizations like B’Tselem were being persecuted as part of an “atmosphere” running from the Prime Minister’s Office, through the Justice Ministry to right-wing groups such as Im Tirtzu.

B'Tselem director Hagai El-Ad (screen capture: YouTube)
B’Tselem director Hagai El-Ad (screen capture: YouTube)

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked’s bill requiring Israeli nongovernmental organizations to publicly declare their foreign government funding is moving toward passage, after it was approved by a cabinet committee at the end of December. Shaked has said the legislation will uncover foreign meddling in Israeli affairs.

In December, the right-wing Im Tirtzu organization posted a video that accused leading figures from Israel’s human rights organizations of being “moles.”

El-Ad also lambasted what he called the “James-Bond-style marketing material” of a report aired Thursday by the Channel 2 investigative news program Uvda, in which a prominent Israeli campaigner for Palestinian rights was recorded saying that he helps Palestinian authorities find and kill Palestinians who sell land to Jews.

The program focused on one individual and his revolting activities, El-Ad said. “They are a group of people who really try to help Palestinians holding on with their fingernails.”

Times of Israel staff and JTA contributed to this report.

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