Knesset members from across the political spectrum are calling for the government to cover all financial losses suffered by Israeli citizens from a rash of wildfires that spread across the country over the past week, regardless of whether the blazes were a result of intentional arson or not.
Speaking at an emergency Knesset Finance Committee session on state compensation to those who have lost their houses, Finance Ministry Director General Shai Ba’avad said the treasury would only reimburse cases in fires determined to be the result of ‘nationalistically’ motivated arson, and not those caused by negligence.
One-third of the fires that raged across the country were suspected to have been set deliberately. In a Sunday statement, police said that they suspect between 30-40 of the 90 fires they have investigated thus far were started by arsonists.
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.
Normally, losses caused by fire damage are only covered for those who take out the appropriate insurance — an additional monthly payment of around 50 shekels (15 dollars) on top of general property insurance that covers the unlikely events of natural disasters and plane crashes into buildings. In the case a disaster is defined as a “nationalistic” attack, victims receive compensation from a special state fund.
But Ba’avad admitted that some people will “fall through the gaps.”
“There will be an aperture in situations where the fire has not be defined as nationalistic and where people whose houses have been destroyed are not insured,” Ba’avad said.
“In that situation the government — the finance minister, the prime minister and others — with have to decide on a set policy,” he added, confirming that as of now, there were no plans for additional payouts.
While Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon has approved a stipend of NIS 2,500 ($650) per person for those who cannot return to their homes either because they were destroyed or are currently uninhabitable, Knesset members are now urging the government to pay full compensation to all victims.
“These fires are a national disaster whether they are nationalistic or not. The state should pay,” Zionist Union MK Elazar Stern told the committee meeting. “I call on the relevant authorities to include all cases in the compensation.”
Knesset member Hamad Amar from the coalition Yisrael Beytenu party said the government must put aside bureaucracy and help victims rebuild their lives. “It doesn’t matter to them if it was nationalistic or not, and it shouldn’t to us,” he said.
Meretz chairwoman Zahava Galon proposed going a step further than making a one-off exception in this case. “Why not just simply decide to change the law so that fund covers this sort of natural disaster?” she asked the Finance Ministry officials present at the meeting.
In addition to state coverage, MKs also called on insurance companies to make sure victims did not suffer extraneous losses. Even if the state does cover losses, it will not total as much as insurance payouts and if victims receive state compensation, they lose any insurance payments.
Knesset member Orly Levy-Abekasis said that “insurance companies cannot hide from their responsibility to pay the difference.” Notably, the Israel Insurance Association was the only invited body not to send a representative to the debate.
The dozens of wildfires that destroyed hundreds of homes and forced tens of thousands to flee was in many ways worse than the deadliest fire in Israel’s history, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday.
Authorities estimate that since Tuesday, some 130,000 dunams (32,124 acres) have been destroyed, approximately 30 percent more than the blaze in the forests around Haifa six years ago.
Haifa city officials said Saturday that this week’s fires ravaged some 28,000 dunams (6,900 acres) of land in the city since Thursday.
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.
Most had returned home by Sunday morning, but an estimated 1,600 residents remained without homes. Between 400 and 530 apartments are said to be completely destroyed by the flames. Dozens of homes in other locales have also been damaged by separate wildfires during the wave.
Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.