Investigations Turn Up Few Arsonists in Recent Wave of Fires

YERUSHALAYIM -
Israeli Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan (R) at a Knesset meeting this week. At left is Israeli Police Chief Roni A lsheich. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Two Palestinians were indicted Thursday on charges of arson connected with the recent fires in the north of Israel, according to media reports.

An 18-year-old and a minor from the Arab town of Umm al-Fahm were charged with setting a fire near the Jewish community of Mei Ami near Haifa during the recent wave of fires that ravaged the country.

The two youths used a lighter to start a brush fire along the entry road to the town adjacent to a cypress forest.

As they fled the scene, a local security official patrolling the area spotted the growing fire and the fleeing vehicle. They gave chase, but the culprits picked up speed and escaped.

The indictment read, “As a result of the actions of the indicted, fire spread and burnt an area spanning 290 square meters” (over 950 square feet).

The results of investigations conducted so far have not confirmed the allegations made by, among others, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, that half were acts of arson. About a dozen suspects were taken into custody, and they did not include those thought to be responsible for the massive destruction in Haifa and Zichron Yaakov.

According to the Tax Authority, only 11 fires could definitely be attributed to arson, the rest having been due to negligence and incendiary weather conditions.

The list of sites included Haifa, Zichron Yaakov, Tal-El, Nataf, Dolev, Gilon, Talmon, Nirit, Halamish, Beit Meir and Har Halutz. In publishing the list, “the authority has now recognized all the fires from the recent wave that are damage entitling compensation,” it said in a statement December 14.

Financial losses suffered from blazes in those 11 places have been defined as “war damages,” which are covered by an emergency state fund for victims of terror.

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

The actual number of arson cases may well be higher than the Tax Authority’s tally, however, though it’s hard to prove.

As chief fire investigator Herzl Aharon told reporters, “When I don’t know, I say I don’t know. I’m not embarrassed — even ‘I don’t know’ is an answer.”

“We still don’t know anything; I wish I had a direction. I go to a place and get an insight — and then I go to another place and everything changes. This is what you call an illusion of topography, the bedlam of the mountainous region, and it is very difficult to investigate,” Aharon explained.