Fires in nine cities and settlements hit in the rash of blazes that spread across the country over the past week were caused by arson and may have been terrorism, the Israel Tax Authority announced Tuesday in a move that paves the way for state compensation for losses.
The hard-hit city of Haifa, where 400 to 530 apartments were completely destroyed, the town of Zichron Ya’akov, and the communal settlement of Tal-El, all in the north of the country, were on the list, as was the communal settlement of Nataf in the Jerusalem Hills. The West Bank settlements of Dolev, Gilon, Talmon, Nirit and Halamish (Neve Tzuf) were also included.
The Tax Authority statement cited specific fires in nine locales beginning at specific times — for example, fire in Haifa at “10 a.m.; November 24.” It was therefore unclear how many of the fires in Haifa were deemed to have been started by arsonists.
“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 statement noted.
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.
The battle to push back the flames marked among the most difficult operations ever undertaken by Israel’s firefighters. Some 2,000 firefighters battled the fires since Tuesday, many of them working in grueling 24-hour shifts alongside 450 soldiers from the Home Front Command and 69 Cypriot firefighters. In a rare move, the Palestinian Authority also sent fire crews to help.
Fourteen planes from Israel’s firefighting squadron, aided by at least 19 additional planes supplied by ten other nations, carried out some 670 sorties dropping more than 1.62 million liters of liquid and foam over fire-struck areas.
In total, over 20,000 police officers took part in operations across the country, police said Tuesday.
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.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud) said Saturday that most of those arrested in connection with the fires are Palestinian residents of the West Bank. A “small minority” of the suspects are Arab Israelis, he added.
In the first such case, police announced Tuesday that a 28-year-old Arab Israeli man from the northern city of Umm al-Fahm is to be indicted for arson.
“Police operations and investigations continue in order to search and find suspects who started fires and they will continue as long as necessary,” police added in a statement.