The Jerusalem Magistrate's Court extended on Tuesday the arrest of two Palestinians suspected of carrying out an arson attack in the Einot Tzukim Nature Reserve near the Dead Sea, which resulted in a massive fire that burned around 400 dunams of unique vegetation.
The suspects, Suliman Batza and Muntasser Gitt, from east Jerusalem, claimed their car broke down after running out of gasoline, which prompted one of their friends to transfer fuel from his vehicle to the suspects' car.
However, the police said the alleged perpetrators’ version of events does not match forensic evidence and had therefore asked, unsuccessfully, the court to extend their detention by 15 days.
The police said the scene of the fire is reminiscent of what has been seen in the Gaza border communities following months of fires caused by incendiary kites and balloons.
"By looking at the images of the area that was burned down, you might get the impression that it’s somewhere in the Gaza border region and not the Dead Sea," said a police representative at the opening of the hearing in Jerusalem’s court.
Tuesday’s fire had also killed a large number of animals, with the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection authority saying it will take years to completely rehabilitate the area.
The two east Jerusalem suspects, in addition to another Palestinian man from al-Eizariya, were arrested shortly after the blaze had erupted, and two of them were later brought before the court.
A hearing regarding the extension of the third suspect’s arrest is due to take place on Wednesday in the Ofer military court in the West Bank.
The uncle of one of the suspects reiterated the official statement made by the three men, suggesting they are innocent.
"They traveled to the Dead Sea, like many young people of their age do. The three of them are friends and on their way home they had run out of gas, so one of their friends helped them transfer fuel from his vehicle to theirs," the uncle asserted.
"Afterwards the police arrested and questioned them with regards to the suspected arson attack, but they are not connected to the incident,” he insisted.
The mother of one of the suspects shared the sentiments, claiming her son’s innocence.
"My son just went traveling and got stuck without fuel. The police claim the fire started after someone had lit a cigarette and threw it into gasoline, but our son doesn’t even smoke," the mother stated.
Defense attorneys Ataf Farhat and Mahmoud Rabah claimed during the hearing that the suspects had no motive to commit such a crime.
"Did they set fire to the reserve because they hate nature? Were they interrogated on suspicion of causing damage to the State of Israel? The police statements are entertaining for the media but there is no truth to them,” stressed the lawyers.
“Even if they did start the fire, it is far from being nationalistically motivated as the police are implying,” the attorneys concluded.
At the end of the hearing, Judge Ilan Sela decided to only partially grant the police's request and extended the alleged perpetrators’ arrest until Thursday.
Einot Tzukim nature reserve was almost completely consumed by a massive blaze that broke out a decade ago.