Palestinian accused of arson released by Israel

Israeli media widely circulated this image, supposedly of a Palestinian setting a forest fire. The man, who had been tending his own land, was interrogated for five days and then released.

A Palestinian man who Israeli media and authorities accused of arson, amid wildfires that forced tens of thousands to flee their homes last week, has reportedly been released without charge.

“Remember Jawad Qattoush from Battir? He starred in all the newspapers in recent days – a Palestinian who lights fires,” Nir Hasson, a journalist for the Tel Aviv newspaper Haaretz, posted on Facebook on Thursday.

“So after five days in detention, interrogation by the Israel Security Agency and the prohibition of a meeting with a lawyer, he went home. He actually did light a fire, he burnt garbage on his own premises, 150 meters from his home, 1.5 kilometers from any Jewish town,” Hasson stated.

“Oh, and he also put out the fire,” Hasson added.

The accusations against Qattoush came as Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, asserted that Palestinians were starting the wildfires that the government was struggling to control.

Qattoush was one of more than 20 Palestinians, some of them citizens of Israel, rounded up on accusations ranging from arson to making satirical comments about the fires on social media.

Tending his land

Israel’s Channel 2 had reported that on Saturday, Israeli park rangers spotted a man setting a fire at “Nahal Refaim in the Judean Hills,” a river valley straddling the boundary line between the occupied West Bank and present-day Israel.

The report claims that inspectors from Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority observed a person coming from Battir, a village west of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, near the boundary line with Israel. The man then began setting vegetation alight, but “thanks to the efforts of the rangers the fire was prevented from spreading.” Channel 2 adds that Israeli occupation forces followed the man back to Battir and detained him there.

Israel’s Ynet also reported that the army and police “apprehended a suspect identified by a forest ranger as setting fire to the brush northwest of the Palestinian village of Battir.”

But in Battir, neighbors told a very different story to Ma’an News Agency reporter Mirna al-Atrash:

They said that Qattoush, 43, works in Jerusalem, and his day off is Saturday, which is when he typically tends to and waters his land. That’s what Qattoush was doing last Saturday, according to one neighbor: he collected scrub and debris and burned it, and then returned home.

The video report shows a small patch of charred earth where Qattoush burned the brush.

“We were surprised when a short time later the army and police arrived and took him away,” the neighbor said.

Another neighbor explained that following the autumn olive harvest villagers typically clear their land of fallen branches, as Qattoush was doing, far from any forested area.

About a third of Battir’s land was seized in 1948 and now lies inside present-day Israel, but under the 1949 Rhodes Armistice Agreement, villagers continue to maintain ownership of their land on the Israeli side. But Qattoush’s land, as Ma’an states, is well within the West Bank side.

In 2014, the United Nations cultural body UNESCO added Battir to its World Heritage List, describing its landscape of olives, vines and the ancient irrigation terraces used by its people as being of “outstanding universal value.”

Battir, which is in an area of heavy encroachment by Israeli settlements and is under threat from Israel’s wall in the West Bank, is also on UNESCO’s list of World Heritage in Danger.

Scapegoating

Adalah, a legal advocacy group that defends the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel, told The Electronic Intifada earlier this week that Netanyahu’s claims that the wildfires were “terrorism” came as part of a “strategy of incitement” against the Arab population.

Israeli analysts also observed that Netanyahu sought to scapegoat Palestinians to shift public anger over failures in the government’s firefighting effort.

In another case, a 24-year-old Palestinian citizen of Israel from the northern town of Umm al-Fahm has been indicted for setting several fires in his neighborhood, but Israeli media reported that the alleged actions had “no nationalistic motives.”

Israeli media revealed on Saturday that a fire blamed on Palestinians may have been started by Israeli forces chasing them in a wooded area west of Jerusalem.

“Though the initial concern was that the two were looking to commit arson out of nationalistic motives, after they were arrested, they were found to be known to the police to be part of a band of thieves,” Ynet reported. “As such, the police began investigating whether the forest fire was caused due to security forces using equipment to light the way during the chase.”

The fires affected Palestinian citizens of Israel as much as anyone else. Palestinian rescue workers and firefighters, both from within Israel and the occupied West Bank, risked their own lives to protect others.

And despite the scapegoating of their communities, they are part of the recovery as well. In the northern city of Haifa, for instance, Palestinian businessmen are repairing a synagogue damaged by a wildfire free of charge.

On Thursday, heavy rains and snow were predicted to bring an end to the long dry spell.

A change in the weather may put out the remaining fires, but it is unlikely to extinguish the Israeli government’s inflammatory attacks and incitement.

Dena Shunra provided translation.

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