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Palestinian arrested in connection with Nataf fire

Fire services reportedly suspect Molotov cocktail thrown from Qatane, outside Jerusalem, sparked last week’s blaze

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

Firefighters try to extinguish a fire in Nataf, outside of Jerusalem, on November 23, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Firefighters try to extinguish a fire in Nataf, outside of Jerusalem, on November 23, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Police arrested a Palestinian man and handed him over to the Shin Bet security service for questioning Wednesday in possible connection with a fire that broke out last week near Nataf, outside Jerusalem, officials said.

The Israel Fire and Rescue Services reportedly believe the fire in Nataf, which destroyed dozens of homes, was caused by a Molotov cocktail thrown over the security fence from the nearby Palestinian village of Qatane.

A spokesperson for the fire department would not confirm the allegation, directing The Times of Israel to the office of Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who also declined to comment.

The police were similarly tight-lipped on the arrest, but the Shin Bet security service acknowledged that a Palestinian from Qatane had been picked up and brought in for questioning.

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)

However, the agency said, it “could not yet connect him to the incident.”

Additional details about the Palestinian suspect were being kept quiet, the Shin Bet said.

In total, 1,773 fires were dealt with by authorities from November 18 to November 26, according to the Fire and Rescue Services spokesman. Police say they suspect several dozen were started by arsonists.

On Tuesday, Israel’s Tax Authority declared that the fire in Nataf, along with blazes in eight other cities and West Bank settlements were “caused by intentional arson with reasonable suspicion of terrorist activities.” The owners of homes damaged in those fires thus would be eligible for state compensation.

Later in the day, however, police said it was too early to know for sure.

Firefighters try to extinguish a wildfire which broke out at the entrance to Nataf, outside of Jerusalem on November 25, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Firefighters try to extinguish a wildfire which broke out at the entrance to Nataf, outside of Jerusalem on November 25, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“It’s still to early to rule nationalistic motives,” police officials told Channel 10 on Tuesday. “Yes, there were incidents of arson, but nationalistic motives are far from being definitively concluded.

“If it emerges that a Jew started some of the fires in an effort to direct blame on Arabs — and there have been several such incidents — then people can wait a little longer,” officials said.

The Tax Authority, however, stood by its assessment, telling the TV channel in response that the list was compiled in accordance with the police investigation.

Authorities estimate that some 130,000 dunams (32,124 acres) were destroyed in the blazes, approximately 30 percent more than the 2010 Carmel fire in which 44 people were killed. Haifa officials said fires ravaged some 28,000 dunams (6,900 acres) of land in the city alone. 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.

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.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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