Police chief: Arson behind some fires, several arrested

‘Nationalist motive’ suspected in several of the blazes sweeping through the country, Roni Alsheich says

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

Firefighters work in a home in Haifa, Israel, Thursday, November 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Firefighters work in a home in Haifa, Israel, Thursday, November 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Some, though not all, of the fires that have been raging through Israel over the past three days appear to be the work of “nationalistically motivated” arsonists, Israel Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich said Thursday.

Speaking to reporters in the northern city of Haifa, where firefighters were battling blazes engulfing several neighborhoods and tens of thousands of people were evacuated, Alsheich said: “It’s likely that there is a nationalist motive in some of the arson cases.”

However, he said, there was no reason to suspect it was an “organized” effort, adding that police would “investigate as needed.”

Alsheich added that some arrests had been made in connection with the fires, but refused to give any additional details on the investigation.

A picture taken on November 24, 2016 shows a bushfire raging in the northern Israeli port city of Haifa. Hundreds of Israelis fled their homes on the outskirts of the country's third city Haifa with others trapped inside as firefighters struggled to control raging bushfires, officials said. (AFP PHOTO / Jack GUEZ)
A picture taken on November 24, 2016 shows a bushfire raging in the northern Israeli port city of Haifa. Hundreds of Israelis fled their homes on the outskirts of the country’s third city Haifa with others trapped inside as firefighters struggled to control raging bushfires, officials said. (AFP PHOTO / Jack GUEZ)

The Shin Bet security service said it was involved in the investigation of the fires, but “cannot yet determine a motive.”

High winds, dry air, weeks without rain — only lightning storms would make the conditions in Israel more conducive to the kinds of fires that have been sweeping through forests and cities across the country for the past three days.

Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich discusses the fires burning across the country on November 24, 2016 (screen capture: Channel 2)
Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich discusses the fires burning across the country on November 24, 2016 (screen capture: Channel 2)

But while weather conditions may have been conducive to stoking the blazes, many in Israel were left wondering what had provided the spark.

“There are some cases of arson, and lots of cases that are not arson,” Alsheich said.

Other than that, police and fire officials have refrained from commenting on which of the wildfires were caused by negligence, criminal arson or “nationalistically motivated” arson.

The largest of the conflagrations was in the port city of Haifa. It has driven tens of thousands of residents from their homes and sent dozens to the city’s hospitals, suffering from smoke inhalation.

It is one of the fires suspected of having been caused by arson, according to a fire department spokesperson, though he said “nothing has been confirmed.”

Fire fighters try to extinguish a fire which broke out in Nataf, outside of Jerusalem on November 23, 2016. Photo by (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Firefighters try to extinguish a fire which broke out in Nataf, outside of Jerusalem on November 23, 2016. Photo by (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

In Nataf, outside Jerusalem, police arrested four men on Wednesday in connection with a blaze there, road workers who are believed to have accidentally started the fire by not properly extinguishing their cooking fire. They were released on Thursday.

Though law enforcement has been loath to comment definitively before additionally evidence could be collected and processed, politicians have had no such qualms.

Government ministers have claimed that “half” of the fires were intentionally set, with one insinuating they were specifically started by Palestinians.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks in the assembly hall of the Knesset, on November 13, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Education Minister Naftali Bennett speaks in the assembly hall of the Knesset, on November 13, 2016. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Education Minister Naftali Bennett said Wednesday night that the fires could only have been set by “someone who this land this does not belong to,” making a thinly veiled reference to Arabs. On Thursday, he said Israel was facing “a wave of arson… terrorism in every sense of the word.”

Bennett is head of the nationalist-religious Jewish Home party, a champion of the settlement enterprise and a strong opponent of the idea of a Palestinian state, on religious as well as security grounds.

Ayman Odeh, head of the Joint (Arab) List Knesset faction, hit back at Bennett on Thursday for suggesting that fires raging across the country had been intentionally set by non-Jews.

“To my regret, someone decided to exploit this dreadful situation to incite and to lash out at an entire community,” Odeh said.

“Whoever loves our homeland has to focus right now on putting out the fires and helping the injured and not on fanning hate.”

On Thursday, Odeh called any arson cases “despicable” and said arsonists “are the enemy of us all.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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