MKs call for state to cover all homes destroyed in fires, arson or not
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MKs call for state to cover all homes destroyed in fires, arson or not

Finance ministry to give immediate NIS 2,500 stipend to those who can’t return to their homes, but DG says ‘some will fall between the cracks’

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

  • Finance Minister and leader of the Kulanu party Moshe Kahlon leads a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, November 7, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
    Finance Minister and leader of the Kulanu party Moshe Kahlon leads a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, November 7, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
  • The 747 Supertanker helps to extinguish a forest fire which broke out near Nataf, outside Jerusalem on November 26, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
    The 747 Supertanker helps to extinguish a forest fire which broke out near Nataf, outside Jerusalem on November 26, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
  • A picture shows the remains of the popular Nataf restaurant Rama's Kitchen on November 26, 2016, a day after it was burned down in a forest fire. (AFP PHOTO/AHMAD GHARABLI)
    A picture shows the remains of the popular Nataf restaurant Rama's Kitchen on November 26, 2016, a day after it was burned down in a forest fire. (AFP PHOTO/AHMAD GHARABLI)
  • Palestinian firefighters arrive in the Jerusalem hills village of Nataf to help extinguish an ongoing fire in the area, on November 26, 2016. (AFP PHOTO/AHMAD GHARABLI)
    Palestinian firefighters arrive in the Jerusalem hills village of Nataf to help extinguish an ongoing fire in the area, on November 26, 2016. (AFP PHOTO/AHMAD GHARABLI)
  • The shadow of a Turkish firefighter jet is seen as it flies over the village of Nataf close to Jerusalem, to help extinguish the ongoing fire in the area, on November 26, 2016. (AFP PHOTO/AHMAD GHARABLI)
    The shadow of a Turkish firefighter jet is seen as it flies over the village of Nataf close to Jerusalem, to help extinguish the ongoing fire in the area, on November 26, 2016. (AFP PHOTO/AHMAD GHARABLI)
  • An Israeli firefighter battles the blaze at the village of Nataf, in the Jerusalem hills, on November 26, 2016. (AFP PHOTO/AHMAD GHARABLI)
    An Israeli firefighter battles the blaze at the village of Nataf, in the Jerusalem hills, on November 26, 2016. (AFP PHOTO/AHMAD GHARABLI)
  • Burned houses and trees in the West Bank settlement of Halamish on November 26, 2016, a day after a devastating fire damaged or destroyed dozens of homes (Israel Fire and Rescue Services)
    Burned houses and trees in the West Bank settlement of Halamish on November 26, 2016, a day after a devastating fire damaged or destroyed dozens of homes (Israel Fire and Rescue Services)
  • An Israeli firefighter unloads hose as they battle a fire in the village of Nataf close to Jerusalem, as it continues to spread in the area, on November 26, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / AHMAD GHARABLI)
    An Israeli firefighter unloads hose as they battle a fire in the village of Nataf close to Jerusalem, as it continues to spread in the area, on November 26, 2016. (AFP PHOTO / AHMAD GHARABLI)

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.

A picture shows the remains of the popular Nataf restaurant Rama's Kitchen on November 26, 2016, a day after it was burned down in a forest fire. (AFP PHOTO/AHMAD GHARABLI)
The remains of the popular Nataf restaurant Rama’s Kitchen on November 26, 2016, a day after it was burned down in a forest fire. (AFP PHOTO/AHMAD GHARABLI)

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.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon meets a resident whose house was damaged by a forest fire last week, in Haifa, November 27, 2016. (Yaakov Lederman/Flash90)
Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon meets a resident whose house was damaged by a forest fire last week, in Haifa, November 27, 2016. (Yaakov Lederman/Flash90)

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.

Meretz leader Zehava Galon on December 25, 2015 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Meretz leader Zehava Galon on December 25, 2015 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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.

Smoke billows over the northern Israeli city of Haifa, where a major fire was raging, November 24, 2016. (Meir Vaknin/Flash90
Smoke billows over the northern Israeli city of Haifa, where a major fire was raging, November 24, 2016. (Meir Vaknin/Flash90

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.

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