November’s wildfires are long extinguished, but where are the arsonists?
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For victims, a terror designation can be financially beneficial, but what of the cost to fragile national unity?

November’s wildfires are long extinguished, but where are the arsonists?

Claims of a terrorist motivation behind at least some of the blazes two months ago seem to have been based on presumption, not evidence

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's military correspondent.

Fire fighters try to extinguish a fire which broke out yesterday in Zichron Yaakov, November 23, 2016. (Doron Horowitz/Flash90)
Fire fighters try to extinguish a fire which broke out yesterday in Zichron Yaakov, November 23, 2016. (Doron Horowitz/Flash90)

In the two months since some politicians labeled the raging wildfires that were sweeping Israel as the work of “those this land does not belong to,” and parts of the Hebrew media excitably reported an “arson intifada,” only a handful of indictments have been filed — none of them for the larger blazes and only one of them alleging a terrorist motivation.

This has prompted fierce criticism from many activists and liberal politicians against right-wing lawmakers — specifically Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — who are accused of having exploited the fires for political benefit, at the expense of national unity.

At the time, Netanyahu referred to the fires as “arson terrorism.” Erdan said the blazes were a “a new kind of terror,” and threatened to demolish the homes of arsonists. Yet when police and the fire department were asked to substantiate Erdan’s claims, spokespeople referred journalists back to the minister’s office.

In the time since the “wave of fires,” as it was referred to in Israel, some of the conflagrations that were initially alleged to be caused by arson have ceased being formally considered as such by the investigating authorities.

For instance, the fire in the northern port city of Haifa, by far the most destructive conflagration, is no longer believed to have necessarily been started intentionally, despite claims by politicians and an announcement by the Tax Authority that it had been, according to Yoram Levy, a spokesperson for the Israel Fire and Rescue Services.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits scene of forest fires that broke out in Zichron Yaakov in northern Israel, on November 23, 2016. (Emil Salman/Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits scene of forest fires that broke out in Zichron Yaakov in northern Israel, on November 23, 2016. (Emil Salman/Pool)

The majority of the blazes — 71 of the 80 investigated by Israel’s fire department — were designated as suspected of having been set intentionally. But suspects for these alleged crimes have proved hard to identify.

While fires were still raging, dozens of people were arrested by police; nearly all have since been let go.

Flames from a massive forest fire in Haifa still burning on November 25, 2016. The massive fires in the city a day earlier led to the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents (Gili Yaari /Flash90)
Flames from a massive forest fire in Haifa still burning on November 25, 2016. The massive fires in the city a day earlier led to the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents (Gili Yaari /Flash90)

Earlier this month, one of the few people who had been charged with arson — for a garbage fire in the Arab city of Umm al-Fahm, which he said was set to protest the municipality’s poor trash collection — was released from police custody. He is still under indictment, but the judge accepted his lawyer’s argument that he was not a risk to others.

In total, eight indictments have been filed against alleged arsonists. All of them are Arab Israelis charged with starting fires in Arab Israeli cities — Deir Hanna, Umm al-Fahm and Jadeidi-Makr.

Another 11 cases have been handed over to various district attorneys — most of them military prosecutors in the West Bank — who have yet to press charges, police said.

The question of how many of the fires were “nationalistically motivated” has remained a divisive topic in Israeli society since the November fires still burned.

“Every fire caused by arson, or by incitement to arson, is terrorism,” Netanyahu said at the time.

MK Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint (Arab) List faction, said soon after that he would issue a formal request for Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to investigate Netanyahu for incitement.

Israelis drive past a fire raging through the northern Israeli port city of Haifa on November 24, 2016. (Jack Guez/AFP)
Israelis drive past a fire raging through the northern Israeli port city of Haifa on November 24, 2016. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Odeh and other left-wing lawmakers decried the allegations of an “arson intifada” as baseless and political. The predominantly right-wing politicians making the claims said they were based on professional assessments.

It seems, however, that the decision by police and the Tax Authority to label many of the fires as “nationalistically motivated” was made not supported by evidence that they were, in fact, terror, but rather due to a lack of evidence to the contrary.

Unless proof was found that indicated the arson was explicitly criminal, it was “closed [as] nationalistic,” police spokesperson Luba Samri told The Times of Israel.

Determining arson

Of course, the very nature of arson makes it difficult to locate the perpetrator; the fire incinerates much of the evidence, leaving investigators with few tools to identify a suspect and a motive — a broken bottle or accelerant residue.

A PowerPoint presentation prepared by the fire department for Erdan, which was incorrectly referred to as an official report by some media outlets, explained the investigators’ rationale for determining which fire was started by arson.

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)

In the case of one fire in Nataf, outside Jerusalem, which destroyed dozens of homes, investigators found what appeared to be Molotov cocktails near where the blaze started.

Another fire in Nataf was found to have been caused by workers who failed to extinguish a cooking fire.

According to the fire department’s presentation, which was provided to The Times of Israel, investigators believe the Zichron Yaakov fire was started intentionally because gasoline was found near the area where the blaze started. But there has been no evidence presented to support the tax office’s decision to consider it terror.

In Ariel, surveillance cameras caught a group of three Palestinians apparently starting a fire outside the northern West Bank settlement. The fire was quickly put out by passers-by and caused no damage. The trio was later arrested and charged in a military court of “nationalistically motivated” arson, making them the only suspects formally accused of terrorism.

An 'arson preparation,' found in a forest near Megiddo in northern Israel, after the wave of fires in November 2016. A similar device was found to be the remains of a fort built by Israeli children. (Israel Fire and Rescue Services)
An ‘arson preparation,’ found in a forest near Megiddo in northern Israel, after the wave of fires in November 2016. A similar device was found to be the remains of a fort built by Israeli children. (Israel Fire and Rescue Services)

Some of the examples cited in the presentation, however, are less definitive.

The investigators pointed to piles of tree branches that were found in some forests in northern Israel, which they said were used to start the fires.

In at least one case, these “arson preparations” were found to be the remains of forts built by Jewish children, and not the nefarious devices of firebugs.

The presumption of terror

While fire department investigators provided their assessments of which fires were arson, they did not evaluate the motive — “criminal” or “nationalistic” — of the alleged crimes. That was determined by the police, who then passed on their recommendations to the Tax Authority for the purposes of compensating victims of terror.

A photograph of a camera showing what appears to be a Palestinian man starting a fire in a field near Battir, outside of Bethlehem on November 26, 2016. (Parks Authority)
A photograph of a camera showing what appears to be a Palestinian man starting a fire in a field near Battir, outside of Bethlehem on November 26, 2016. (Parks Authority)

A number of those fires — especially the ones in the West Bank and along the “seam zone” that separates the West Bank from Israel proper — were determined to have been terror based on evidence from the scene, including surveillance footage in some cases.

Some cases “are still pending” and investigators have yet to “reach the truth,” police said.

But others seem to have been labeled terror by the police and Tax Authority based on presumption, not evidence.

“People weren’t just starting fires because they were bored,” a spokesperson for the authority said last week.

In November, Police Chief Roni Alsheich made a similar remark. “It’s reasonable to assume that whoever is committing arson isn’t doing so because of pyromania,” he said.

The Tax Authority said it bases its decisions on police and fire department findings, but in some cases it apparently went against their initial conclusions. For instance, the case of Haifa, which investigating authorities do not believe was necessarily the work of arson, let alone “nationalistically motivated” arson, is nonetheless regarded as precisely that by the authority.

‘People weren’t just starting fires because they were bored’

Even if the fire were ultimately proven to have been caused by negligence or by non-terror arson, the Tax Authority’s designation remains.

In order to pay victims quickly, the authority works off initial assessments and “reasonability,” instead of waiting until the end of the investigation.

“You don’t need to come with the perpetrator in handcuffs,” a Tax Authority spokesperson said.

The legal basis

According to Eli Bahar, a former legal adviser to the Shin Bet security service, the assumption of “terror until proven criminal” has its basis in Israeli law — a law that he called “problematic.”

Some 10 years ago, the government amended the country’s laws regarding compensation for “victims of enemy actions,” the legal term for acts of terror.

‘Who has an incentive to prove it was otherwise?’

The law now states: “Anyone injured from circumstances where it is reasonable to assume they were injured by enemy actions, the injury will be seen as an injury by the enemy, unless proven otherwise.”

Barring overwhelming evidence that an incident was not terror, that designation is liable to remain, Bahar said.

“Who has an incentive to prove it was otherwise?” he asked.

A firefighter on November 26, 2016, surveys the remains of Rama's Kitchen restaurant, burned down a day earlier during a wildfire in Nataf, outside of Jerusalem (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A firefighter on November 26, 2016, surveys the remains of Rama’s Kitchen restaurant, burned down a day earlier during a wildfire in Nataf, outside of Jerusalem (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In the case of the fires, the victims have no desire to protest the terror designation. As “victims of enemy actions,” they receive government compensation to cover their property damage. If the fire was not terror, but was caused negligence or a pyromaniac, only those citizens with insurance would be covered.

But on a purely practical level, that compensation law gives a free pass to people without insurance, on the backs of taxpayers, Bahar said.

And in terms of Israeli society, that assumption of terror can also be used by politicians to incite against Israel’s Arab population, creating deeper divisions within the country, he added.

Editor’s note: The story has been updated to reflect that one indictment filed against alleged arsonists did note a terrorist motive.

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