The Supreme Court on Thursday ruled to extend the prison sentence of Eyal Reuveni, who was convicted last year of the July 2015 arson attack at the Church of the Multiplication of the Loaves and Fishes in northern Israel.
The panel of three judges accepted the State Attorney’s Office appeal and tacked on an extra 18 months to the 23-year-old’s four-year sentence, citing the fact that the assailant had targeted a holy site and that it was an ideologically motivated crime.
One of the judges, Yitzhak Amit, even sought to convict Reuveni’s alleged accomplice Yehuda Asraf, who was acquitted in July 2017. However, the other two judges, David Mintz and Yosef Elron deemed that there was still reasonable doubt regarding Asraf’s culpability and decided to overrule Amit.
Responding to the Supreme Court’s decision, Reuveni’s attorney Itamar Ben Gvir claimed that much lighter punishments have been handed down to Arab-Israeli assailants who torched synagogues and yeshivas.
“It is very unfortunate that there is discrimination in punishment between Jews and Arabs, and even more unfortunate that the court did not treat Reuveni as any other defendant. If it had, he should have been acquitted and certainly would not have had his punishment increased,” said Ben Gvir.
Reuveni was found guilty of setting fire to the chapel in Tabgha, along the Sea of Galilee, where Christians believe Jesus fed 5,000 people in the miracle of the five loaves and two fish.
He was charged with aggravated arson, destruction of property with hostile intent, using a vehicle to carry out a criminal act, and conspiracy to commit other crimes.
Two rooms in the church compound were vandalized and badly damaged in the blaze.
Hebrew graffiti was found on another building within the complex, reading, “Idols will be cast out or destroyed.”
The complex reopened to pilgrims last February following eight months of renovation work at a cost of around $1 million, of which the State of Israel contributed almost $400,000.
Around the time of the attack, Reuveni was living in the Baladim outpost adjacent to the Kochav Hashahar settlement. Baladim was home to activists known as “hilltop youth,” young people who move to settlement outposts and have been known to resist soldiers’ attempts to evacuate them and to carry out attacks against Palestinians. Israeli security forces viewed the illegal outpost as a hotbed for extremism, and evacuated it last year.