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Top Arab MK seeks incitement probe against Netanyahu over arson claims

Ayman Odeh to ask attorney general to investigate PM’s statements that seemed to implicate Arabs in rash of blazes

Joint (Arab) List head Ayman Odeh addresses a question to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset on July 18, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)
Joint (Arab) List head Ayman Odeh addresses a question to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset on July 18, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The leader of the opposition Joint (Arab) List announced on Monday that he would seek to have Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu investigated for incitement over remarks he made that seemed to accuse Arab Israelis of deliberately setting fires.

Ayman Odeh said he would issue a formal request for Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to probe Netanyahu for incitement.

Odeh was responding to remarks made by officials during the recent wave of devastating fires that appeared to implicate Arabs as arsonists.

He said that if any of the blazes were deliberately set, the arsonists should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

However, despite claims by politicians, fire and police officials say it is not clear how many of the rash of fires that wreaked havoc across the country were set deliberately.

During the course of six days which saw firefighters battling 1,773 blazes across the country, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan told Army Radio that almost half the fires were caused by arson.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tours the village of Beit Meir in the Jerusalem hills, which was ravaged by a wildfire overnight on Friday, November 25, 2016 (Kobi Gideon / GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tours the village of Beit Meir in the Jerusalem hills, which was ravaged by a wildfire overnight on Friday, November 25, 2016 (Kobi Gideon / GPO)

However, fire officials said they could not confirm those figures.

During the fires, which finally died down on November 27, Netanyahu said several times that some of the fires were arson, which he termed “terrorism.” He and others pledged to work to strip anyone found guilty of their residency.

“Anyone who tries to burn parts of the State of Israel will be punished severely,” he said last month.

Around 35 people were arrested on suspicion of committing arson or inciting others to do so. All were Arabs.

However, Channel 2 revealed Saturday that just 10 people were still in custody for suspected arson, and the rest of the detainees were released unconditionally.

Men hose down wildfires in Haifa, Israel, November 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Men hose down wildfires in Haifa, Israel, November 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Only two indictments have been filed, one of them for burning garbage.

There were no suspects in large fires in Haifa and Zichron Ya’akov, the channel reported, nor were there any suspects — or even definitive proof that arson was involved.

Herzl Aharon, the head of the investigation into the fires, suggested people should downplay claims that the blazes were started deliberately, casting doubt on politicians’ cries of “arson terrorism” during and in the aftermath of efforts to contain the flames.

“When I don’t know, I say I don’t know. I’m not embarrassed – even ‘I don’t know’ is an answer,” Aharon told Channel 2.

“We still don’t know anything. I wish I had a direction,” he said.

“I go to a place and get an insight — and then I go to another place and everything changes. This is what you call a illusion of the topography, the bedlam of the mountainous region, and it is very difficult to investigate.”

Yoram Schweitzer, an expert in counter-terrorism at the Institute for National Security Studies, said, “We would do well to dispense as much as possible with the widespread tradition in Israel of determining whether something is a terrorist incident long before it is proven to be so.”

“We should wait patiently, despite the mob clamor for blood and the fervor of politicians to point the finger at entire groups when it is clear that these were acts by individuals, as this only helps those who want to cause provocation.”

Some 527 apartments were totally destroyed in Haifa, the worst-hit area, from which 75,000 people had to be evacuated at the height of the blazes.

View of the a mosque in the Old City of Acre, in Northern Israel on October 24, 2016. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
View of the a mosque in the Old City of Acre, in Northern Israel on October 24, 2016. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Odeh also slammed a bill that would ban mosques from using loudspeakers to broadcast the early morning call to prayer, saying it’s a “decree that the community will not be able to withstand.”

And he maintained that the so-called Regulation Bill, which would legalize some West Bank outposts built with state assistance, would lead Israeli leaders to be sued at the ICC, as Netanyahu has reportedly warned.

“I recommend they hire lawyers,” he said of Israeli politicians spearheading the legislation.

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