A fire started by Israeli forces during a botched operation to detonate explosives in a West Bank commercial zone quickly spread and burned a Palestinian government office, at least nine stores and an open-air market, in the early morning hours Thursday.
In total, half of a downtown block in Ramallah was damaged beyond repair.
The flames spread after soldiers used an incendiary device to pry open an oversized safe inside of a money exchange shop, which stored funds for a Palestinian militant group, according to a spokesperson for the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) speaking to the Times of Israel.
When the owner of the store “refused to open the safe, the forces who were there carried out the detonation in a controlled way,” the spokesperson said.
The fire broke out in al-Bireh, adjacent to the de facto capital of the West Bank, Ramallah. The busy commercial district marks the border between the two municipalities and is considered the at the heart of downtown Ramallah.
Local fireman had arrived on the scene to control the blaze, but were prevented from reaching the site by Israeli forces for 40 minutes, said Jamal Dajani, a spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority. The delay, he said, caused the fire to engulf several more business.
Three Palestinian civil affairs employees were injured while responding. All of the contents of the money-exchange store were reduced to ash, with one hulking exception; the safe Israeli soldiers attempted to open remained intact, and appeared closed.
“Israel continues unabated to invade Palestinian areas and subject average citizens to danger, and this is one where they went and destroyed several building with a fire, this could have had more severe consequences than it did,” Dajani said.
By early nightfall the following day, piles of blackened fruit and wooden pallets were still smoking.
“I lost 20,000 kilos of vegetables,” said Mousa Abu Awad, 20, the owners of a stall in the bazaar.
Business continued as usual for stands that were spared by the fire, but Abu Awad spent Thursday barreling his lost product and sweeping out water and soot left caked onto the market floor.
Abu Awad witnessed the Israeli incursion. He saw nearly 30 army Jeeps posted outside of the market, with soldiers operating inside of the money changer. “They had white plastic shopping bags full of money,” he said.
Once the flames were beyond control, Palestinian youth clashed with soldiers. But Abu Awad kept a safe distance, looking on as his business burned, “If I tried to talk to them [the soldiers], they would have shot me,” he feared.
Israeli forays into Palestinian cities are nightly, typically to arrest wanted Palestinians. While damage is not unheard of, such extensive ruin is quite uncommon as is the destruction of properties belonging to the Palestinian government. One of the workplaces set alight was a municipal service office for the city of al-Bireh where resident pay bills.
Both Israel and the Palestinian Authority are conducting separate investigation into the fire. Assessing liability will be challenging and politically charged. As a practice the Palestinian government does not file petitions for compensation in Israeli courts, said PLO spokesperson Xavier Abu Eid, but individual Palestinians are free to appeal for damages.
“What happened in particular in this case, it doesn’t only show the presence of Israeli forces, but it also shows the large degree and the senseless of how Palestinians are under Israeli occupation,” Abu Eid said.
“Every single Israeli violation is being documented,” he added.