Emergency services at the scene of the fire

Emergency services at the scene of the fire

The fire at the offices of an Israeli human rights organisation part-funded by the British taxpayer could have been arson, investigators said this week, after a blaze gutted the group’s Jerusalem base on Sunday evening.

B’Tselem, which has received hundreds of thousands of pounds from the British government in recent years, has been highly critical of Israeli government policies and actions towards the Palestinian people.

Firefighters fought for an hour to bring the 10pm blaze under control. The service later reported “two centres of combustion,” both on the first floor, where B’Tselem offices are housed. One person trapped on the fourth flood was taken to hospital and treated for smoke inhalation. 

B’Tselem, a non-governmental organisation (NGO), houses ‘Hand in Hand,’ an interfaith organisation which runs the bilingual school targeted in an arson attack in November 2014. Two Jewish extremists belonging to the far-right Lehava group were convicted of that attack and sentenced to two years in prison.

In a statement, B’Tselem said: “If it is discovered that this was an arson attack, it must be seen in the context of the wave of government incitement and smear campaigns against Israel’s human rights groups, and B’Tselem in particular.”

It added: “Naturally, the damage to our offices will not stop our work of documenting and exposing the harm to human rights under the occupation.”

Peace Now, another human rights organisation critical of the government, said: “Cabinet ministers, led by [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu, are responsible. The government must stop its incitement campaign against the left and order Israel Police to secure left-wing NGOs from any attempt to harm them.”

Leading Arab-Israeli politician Ayman Odeh likewise said that the “source of the fire was the incitement campaign waged against human rights organisations by the government and its leader.” 

Israel’s Likud-led government has proposed new laws to limit funding of NGOs from foreign governments and private benefactors, and B’Tselem is one of the main group this new law would impact.