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Bedouin man arrested for ‘sarcastic’ arson post kept in jail

Activists plan to protest decision by Beersheba court, claiming Facebook post was mistranslated and misunderstood

Raoul Wootliff is the The Times of Israel's political correspondent.

An illustrative photo of someone using the Facebook mobile app. (CC BY melenita2012/Flickr)
An illustrative photo of someone using the Facebook mobile app. (CC BY melenita2012/Flickr)

An Israeli Arab man arrested after appearing to support arson on Facebook was ordered to remain in police custody over the weekend, despite claims that his statement was clearly marked as sarcasm.

The Beersheba Magistrate’s Court decided Saturday night to keep the 24-year-old suspect, who hails from the predominantly-Bedouin town of Rahat in southern Israel, in custody until Monday.

He was arrested on Friday after calling in Arabic for “hooligans” to set fire to forests in Israel. There has been a nationwide effort to crack down on those involved in blazes that have spread across the country in the last week.

In all, at least 35 people have been arrested since Thursday on suspicion of setting fires or inciting others to do so. More than 15 of them were Palestinians arrested by the Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet security service, an army spokesperson said, while at least 10 of those being held are Israeli Arabs, according to Hebrew media reports.

But Knesset members from the Joint (Arab) List have called for the immediate release of the Rahat resident, saying that his Facebook post was sarcastic and its meaning was lost in translation.

View of a road in Rahat on August 18, 2015. ( Hadas Parush/Flash90)
View of a road in Rahat on August 18, 2015. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

His defense counsel has submitted an appeal to the court decision and a further hearing will be held Sunday to determine if the remand will be upheld. Arab Israeli activists said they planned to hold a vigil outside the Beersheba court during the hearing.

MK Taleb Abu Arar from the Joint (Arab) List said Sunday he has put in an official request for a professional translator to be brought to the court.

The post, read by The Times of Israel, appears to be written in overly dramatic language, and in a sarcastic tone, mocking of actual incitement.

The post also called for a boycott of Turkey for sending firefighting assistance and ended with a hashtag, “Sarcasm, not serious.”

The man arrested has a bachelors degree in economics and a masters degree in communications. He teaches photography to youths in his town.

Joint (Arab) List chair Aymen Odeh (right) talking to party MKs at the weekly faction meeting, October 31, 2016. (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)
Joint (Arab) List chair Aymen Odeh (right) talking to party MKs at the weekly faction meeting, October 31, 2016. (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)

Odeh said on Friday he was working to free other Arabs he believes were mistakenly arrested for suspected arson. “Only during dark times in history, such as in the old days in Europe, are minorities blamed unjustly, before the facts and truth are checked,” he said in a statement.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday there was “no doubt” some of the fires were started deliberately. “There is a price to pay for the crimes committed, there is a price to pay for arson terrorism,” he said.

During a visit on Saturday night to communities damaged by fires, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan called for the destruction of the homes of those found guilty of arson, in a measure similar to those taken against Palestinians who carried out deadly terrorist attacks in the past.

An Israeli firefighter inspects the damage at Beit Meir in the Jerusalem hills, on November 25, 2016. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)
An Israeli firefighter inspects the damage at Beit Meir in the Jerusalem hills, on November 25, 2016. (AFP/Ahmad Gharabli)

In all, as much as 130,000 dunams (32,000 acres) of natural forests and brush were destroyed, about 30 percent more than the territory affected by the Carmel Forest fire of 2010. A great deal of the Judean Hills National Park and the Kfir Nature Reserve was burned.

Haifa city officials said Saturday that the fires ravaged some 28,000 dunams (6,900 acres) of land in the city since Thursday. Between 400 and 530 homes were damaged by the fires there.

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