Two months have passed since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan claimed Israel was under a slew of "arson terror attacks."
This claim was based, among other things, on presentations and reports prepared by Fire & Rescue Authority officials, which pointed to dozens of fires they claimed were the result of arson.
On the other side of the political map, MKs from the left wing, and particularly from the Joint List, said these allegations constituted incitement. They based their claims on police reports according to which the dozens arrested on suspicion of arson were released and only eight were indicted, but were not attributed nationalistic motives.
A comprehensive examination that reviewed the findings of the Fire & Rescue Authority's investigations into the fires that ravaged Israel for five days, however, reveals a far more complex picture.
On the one hand, it transpired that in many of the cases fire investigators labeled as arson, this determination was based on evidence that was not sufficiently established.
In other cases, the investigators labeled the fire as arson without any evidence to support that determination, explaining that "all other options were ruled out."
Furthermore, several of the incidents that were labeled as arson happened near Arab communities, which raises doubt concerning a nationalistic motive.
Besides the fire in Zikhron Ya'akov and one of the fires in Nataf, the other giant fires, among which is the one in Haifa, there are no clear findings. In addition, fire investigators' reports only include partial findings for some of the fires, general information, missing dates and findings opens to interpretation, such as photos of wood piles presented as "tools for arson."
On the other hand, the claim that all those arrested have been released and that no indictment was filed for nationalistic arson is incorrect, and it refers only to those arrested by the police.
The Military Advocate General recently indicted three Palestinians who were held by the Shin Bet for nationalistically-motivated arson near Ariel. According to the indictment, one of the arsonists was quoted saying to one of his friends after the fact that "the arsonists' intifada has commenced."
The Shin Bet is holding three other detainees against whom evidence accumulated for the fires in the vicinity of Tal-El and Gilon. Moreover, substantial evidence indicating arson has been presented in over 14 fire events close to the separation barrier.
Reviewing the reports and surveys offered by the principal investigators from the Fire & Rescue Authority indicates misinformation with regard to the evidence and findings that led to the conclusions on the circumstances surrounding some of the fires.
One of the reports presented two weeks ago to fire officials is very similar to the one that was presented to them immediately following the fires. At the time, it was said that the report was low on information due to its initial stage.
Despite the time that has passed, about half of the slides in a presentation of the report had not been updated. In fact, 18 out of 38 slides were copied directly from the presentation prepared two months earlier. Many findings are general, and some are missing dates and present no details regarding the final findings.
The first report's presentation, first published on Ynet, was put together by the Fire Department's Operations Directorate soon after the events and indicated 39 of the fires were declared arson. The second presentation, which is more recent, indicated that 71 of the fires were declared arson.
However, a more careful perusal of the up-to-date presentation reveals that it is almost completely identical to the first one, and even though much time has passed, it does not indicate any progress in the investigation or that any additional substantial evidence have been collected, other than a change in the numerical data relating to the number of arsons, without any explanation.
In the number of fires, the fire investigators determined that if a fire has several points of origin, it is enough to determine that the it is the result of arson, even though several fires started by negligence would also often have several points of origin. At times, an event is determined arson due to the fact that the fire reignited in the area several times, though the fire investigators themselves have testified that there were cases in which the fire spread and restarted on its own.
Both reports' presentations explained that in the Savion Junction fire, a "suspect was arrested" (without explanation, evidence, or specification), and in the following slide, it was stated that the security camera captured "a figure emerging during a fire at a car wash," with no explanation as to why this would indicate arson.
The presentation showcased that the Fire & Rescue Authority has established a few of the findings: the number of points of origin, lighter fluid or Molotov cocktails found, the existence of security camera footage, kindling and aerial footage.
"We have an official stance about each and every fire incident, especially when it comes to arson," says Ran Shelef, the head of the Investigations Department in the National Fire & Rescue Authority, in response to a query from Yedioth Ahronoth and Ynet.
"I can't release these reports since cases suspected of arson are transferred for further handling by the Israel Police. Every red point you see on the map represents an investigated case. The (released) report was intended to provide an overview since it is of national importance. We usually do not do that. It is important to provide a general picture—not only about these particular fires. Perhaps in the future, the Ministry of Public Security or the police will approve the release of the material."
Shelef agreed to review the main fire findings with us and explain how the conclusions were reached.
The fire at Beit Meir, like four other fires, was defined by Shelef as a "mishap." On the morning of the fire, the police released an official statement that it was apparently caused by arson and suspects were seen fleeing the area and were later arrested.
Later on, it was reported that Air Force footage had identified the suspects in the act. In spite of that, during the afternoon hours, after the suspects' interrogation, it turned out that "the fleeing figures" were illegally in Israel, and that the fire was started by a flare bomb shot by a Border Police force, even though the Fire & Rescue Authority prohibited the use of such weapons due to the risk of fires.
Even though these conclusions were known to the police on the day of the fire, it neither denied nor confirmed the findings. In fact, to this day, no official statement has been released regarding the fire investigation at Beit Meir.
Shelef, on his part, views the investigation as proof of the fire investigators' credibility. "The Fire & Rescue Authority's Investigation Department, the police and the prosecution could have very well closed the case on the three arrested men," he said.
"And I'm telling you, had we brought these suspects to court, there is a good chance they would have been sitting in jail for arson. Why? Because they were in a place they shouldn't have been. A fire started, and really, they were just walking around? I'm telling you, the court could have jailed them for the arson and the damage. We checked, and as it turns out, the military force fired a flare bomb. We went and searched the fire site and found residue of the flare bomb."
In the updated presentation, it was specifically determined as well that the fire was caused by arson. On one of the slides, it says "the fire in Zikhron Ya'akov—gasoline was found at the fire site," and on another, "gasoline was found after a sniffer dog was sent out."
In this case as well, two months had passed since the fire and no new findings were specified regarding the investigation: how the arson was done and how the sniffer dog was used.
"The fire started in an open area near route 77," Shelef explained. "We brought a dog and it identified a point of origin with a substance that was sent to the lab. We didn't rely on the dog. We sent the findings to the lab and discovered it was gasoline. Gasoline has no place in such an open area; it was also found at the center of the fire."
Another section of the presentation was dedicated to cases in which the fire was determined as arson based on photos received from the Air Force. According to the presentation, the footage depicted three points of origin where the fire spread between the Arab village of Nahf and the Jewish town of Halutz, which led to the conclusion that it was caused by arson. But the points of origin are actually very close in proximity to the Arab town, and those residents were the ones evacuated from their homes, which raises questions about the hypothesis according to which it was a nationalistically-motivated arson.
Shelef rejected the claims, saying "These are three unconnected locations. You do the math and understand that whoever did it did not act randomly, he was aware of the direction of the wind and knew where it leads."
Regarding the claim that Nahf was the one to be eventually evacuated, he said, "During the weekend, a report was issued by a senior officer who said that the military helped put out the fire in a Palestinian village adjacent to Talmon as the fire spread. It happens. The wind was not correctly taken into consideration, and the fire started spreading into the village. In most cases, we see people leaving their homes in the village, walking a few hundred meters, starting the fire, and then going back."
Neve Shalom and first Nataf fire
The investigation led to the conclusion that both of these fires were the result of negligence. The fire in Neve Shalom started as a result of a hookah coal smoked by teenagers near the town. A special task force investigator on behalf of the Jerusalem District Fire Department, Cpt. Moshe Elazary, documented the remnants left by the teens and what was left of the hookah.
The Jerusalem District's fire investigators reached the distinct conclusion that the fire started due to a bonfire lit by National Roads Company workers to warm up. The fire's residue was documented by the investigators, and four workers were arrested for suspected negligence, but they were released by the court since no evidence could link them to the fire as dozens of workers had been in the area.
The second fire in Nataf
This time, the Fire & Rescue Authority obtained unequivocal evidence that it was caused by arson. The fire consumed about 25,000 acres in the area between the separation barrier near the villages Qatanna and Nataf. Damage was caused to two buildings, among them a restaurant called Rama's Kitchen.
Nature and Park Authority observers testified that they identified Palestinians throwing Molotov cocktails near the barrier when the fire started. Jerusalem District fire investigators reported finding clear signs of Molotov cocktails on the scene, as well as a bottle that did not shatter since it got stuck in the fence.
In the presentation that Shelef signed off on, much like in the first presentation, two pictures of the stuck bottle appeared. After the fire, a suspect was arrested from Qatanna. The Shin Bet told Yedioth Ahronoth that the detainee was transferred to the police.
Talmon, Dolev and Halamish
Based on the reports and the Judea and Samaria District fire investigators' findings, there is substantial evidence indicating arsons in fires in the West Bank area, but the presentation file is lacking in information. It stated that the fire in Halamish—which caused serious damage to 18 houses—is the result of arson, since it started in two locations close to the town. The presentation provided a map showing the origin points near the fence, which meas it is less likely that it was caused by another factor.
The Talmon fire was also caused by arson, according to the report, but it did not state the way in which the investigators reached that conclusion, while the fires in Dolev were determined as arson, according to Shelef, due to the fact the event was repetitive, meaning the fire reignited. At the time, a security video was released showing several figures in the entrance to the village, but in Shelef's review, there was no reference to the video.
Shai Turgeman, head of the Investigations Department in the Fire & Rescue Authority's Judea and Samaria District, told Yedioth Ahronoth that the fire in Halamish was determined to be arson since two points of origin were found near the fence.
"One of the points of origin was near lands cultivated by Palestinians and near a Palestinian village," he said.
Regarding Talmon, he said that "no cause for the fire was found, but we reached the conclusion that it was arson by eliminating all other possibilities. We have thirty options—from electric failure to kids play. Once all other options have been eliminated, it cannot be anything but arson. The area is sterile with regard to other reasons."
Similar conclusions were reached regarding the fire in Dolev. "There, too, we eliminated all other options. Sometimes, arson is highly probable. You can say: 'All those things are not there.' What is left then is manmade. There is no coincidence. In Dolev, we found glass bottles suspected to be Molotov cocktails, but after an investigation, no kindling was found."
Regarding the video that was released but not referenced, he said, "It relates to the second incident, which is a continuation of the first. Yes, a fleeing figure is identified but we did not reference the video since it's an ongoing, repetitive incident. Open area fires are difficult to completely extinguish. Sometimes, a gust of wind or an ember may cause it to reignite, and you go back to work."
The mystery of Haifa
In the most up-to-date report there is no information regarding the giant fire in Haifa, and it doesn't appear at all on the list of fire sites. In the first report, on the other hand, an entire section was devoted to the fire along with a map, and it was explained that the fire broke out in three points of origin: One broke out at 9:30am at the Heletz station, the second at 10:04am at the Ofer Bridge, and the third at 11:54am at another location east of Ramat Hen. Regarding the third location, it also clearly states that there was "an arson attempt and the fleeing of a suspect from the site."
In the updated report, the Haifa fire is missing entirely, and the findings of the investigation are shrouded in mystery. It did not state which findings led the Fire & Rescue Authority to conclude that the third origin point was arson and why the investigation is missing from the conclusions presented to senior fire officials by Shelef two weeks ago.
"The review is currently undergoing auditing by the Coastal District's legal advisor and is near completion," Shelef said when asked to comment on the matter. "We suspect that there were more than three points of origin. It has been written and is in the last stage of legal counselling."
Events in the vicinity of the fence
Both of the Fire & Rescue Authority's reviews presented a map, according to which 14 arson events occurred in the Seam Zone, among them on route 443, near Ispro Center in Modi'in, in Matan, in Megiddo, in Mevaseret Zion (near the separation barrier) and in Har Hadar.
For an inexplicable reason, the fire in Gan Vradim in Rishon Lezion was also included on this list, and it was also determined to be arson.
For some of these fires, the findings leading to this conclusion were also presented, such as in Nataf (signs of Molotov cocktails at the site and lookouts), Megiddo (three points of origin and a pile of wood) and Horshim (a vehicle with "tools for arson" from which suspects were seen fleeing). Meanwhile, for other fires, no evidence or conclusions were presented.
Either way, the arsons map indicating multiple cases adjacent to the separation barrier served as one of the factors that led the fire investigators to suspect that these events were caused by deliberate arson.
Regarding fence adjacent fires, Shelef expained that "Many fires on the eastern side of the Seam Zone started with the intention that the eastern wind would lead the fire to Nirim, Oranit and Har Hadar-Mevaseret. Some of these fires developed while others didn't. That is the case if it comes from a village named Abu-Salman, and it is very close to Nirit, and you find two tires that started the fire."
Regarding the claim that the fire origin points on their own are not evidence of arson, Shelef said, "We saw a fire start in Tal-El, followed by one in Achihod forest a few days later, and then another fire in Gilon some days after that. Take the map. In this case, the Shin Bet has two detainees who confessed and reenacted the fire. We made sure to run a very thorough investigation. I repeatedly appeared in the media, and every time I was extremely cautious with my words saying that some cases were the result of negligence and some, arson. Others have said it was all arson. But when you get the final picture, after a thorough review, I can tell you that we insisted on reaching the truth. Every opinion is written down and will stand the legal test. I don't know which files I will read, but if the Shin Bet has detainees, and even if they confessed, my experts will have to come and present the case file."
Are the fires presented in the report likely the result of arson?
"Yes, each fire has findings."