Israel on fire; Shin Bet investigating possibility of fire terrorism

Fire in the community of Talmon, Binyamin (Hillel Maeir/TPS)

Police Commissioner Roni Alsheikh said Thursday that “several” individuals have been arrested on suspicion that they were involved in arson attacks over the past several days, and Shin Bet (Israel Security Officials) said the agency is investigating the possibility that several of the fires were actual terror attacks, nationalistically motivated.

Alsheikh refused to comment further on the arrests and ongoing investigation, other than to say that it was “reasonable to assume” individuals that intentionally ignited fires with the current weather conditions were not innocent pyromaniacs, hinting at the possibility of nationalist attacks.

At least four Palestinians were arrested Thursday on suspicion of intentionally setting brush fires in the Jerusalem Corridor.

Earlier Thursday, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan suggested that up to half of the fires currently ravaging Israel were arson attacks. He said that high winds and dry conditions around the country mean that a large forest fire can be started by as little as a cigarette butt.

Arabic-language social media has been awash with celebratory cartoons, images and statements since the outbreak of fires Tuesday. One Facebook post called the fires “Allah’s revenge” for Israel’s proposal to limit early-morning noise levels from mosques’ calls. On Twitter, one person named Salma tweeted “For the first time, fires makes me happy cause that’s what happens When U ban muslim call for prayer, U deserve it”, while another, Lateefa Khan, said “When the devil isnt (sic) dragged to hell, hell comes to the devil.”

In addition MK Basel Ghattas (Joint List) responded to a post in which Education Minister Naftali Bennett says that “Only people who have no connection to this land could possibly burn it down.”

“Yes, Mr Bennett, you’re right. That’s why you’ve been burning our land for 70 years! You are foreign occupiers. This is our land!” Ghattas responded. (Translation courtesy of Palestinian Media Watch).

More than 220 fires have broken out since Tuesday, beginning with Neve Shalom-Wahat al-Salam, a Jewish-Arab settlement near Bet Shemesh and spreading to other areas near Bet Shemesh, Mod’in, Judea and Samaria, the Jerusalem corridor, Haifa, Hadera, Zikhron Ya’akov, Umm al-Fahm, Lachish, Nesher, and the Western Galilee.

Several Hebrew-language media have started using the phrase “Fire Intifada.”

Police commissioner has instructed to set up a national investigation team to look into the background of the fires. The investigations and intelligence team will examine the fires and how they started, each one separately including forensics and try and reach suspects who could have been behind the fires.

Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked reported in a Facebook post Clause 448 of the Penal Code on Arson. According to Israeli law, a person who set a fire intentionally on an object which does not belong to him can be sentenced to 15 years in jail. However, a fire which was set with a specific intention to damage the property of the state or a natural site can incur a 20-year prison sentence.

Following the wave of suspected arson, the civil rights organization Lavie, under the direction of Adv. Doron Nir Zvi, called on Minister Shaked to use her authority and immediately set up an integrated enforcement team headed by district attorneys to identify and bring to justice the perpetrators and further claimed that the work of local investigating authorities is simply not enough.

Adv. Zvi quotes the verdict rendered by Justice Shaul Gabay Richter from the Jerusalem District Court, who judged the case of the four arrested with regards to Wednesday’s arson near Jerusalem: “I am appalled by the evidence that the police ignored important information provided by the respondents in their statements […] and I urge the police to look into these in their continuing investigations  and direct them consequently as soon as possible.”

Ilana Messika participated in this report.