Palestinian-owned Caulfield burger shop destroyed in suspicious fire

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Police say a suspicious fire that badly damaged a Palestinian Australian’s burger shop in Melbourne’s south-east isn’t religiously or politically motivated, despite the owner believing he was targeted for attending pro-Palestine rallies.

Burgertory founder Hash Tayeh told this masthead staff at his Caulfield outlet had been threatened and told they “worked for a terrorist”. Tayeh has attracted some criticism online for attending the rallies in Melbourne.

Victoria Police detectives at the scene.Credit: Simon Schluter

The Jordanian-born 33-year-old said he was “gutted” after he woke up to a phone call on Friday morning to inform him that the Caulfield store had been destroyed by fire.

Tayeh told this masthead he thought the fire appeared to be a hate crime. Victoria Police Inspector Scott Dwyer told reporters this afternoon he was “very confident” it was not an attack motivated by prejudice.

However, Dwyer would not “go into the details of the incident or what evidence has been gathered”.

“All I can say is, I want to tell people I am very confident that this is not linked to a religious or political incident,” he said.

Burgertory founder Hash Tayeh (centre) pictured in 2021.Credit: Luis Ascui

“I would warn people not to make assumptions or draw lines of inquiry that aren’t there between this incident and anything else that is occurring.”

Ten fire crews responded to the blaze on the corner of Glenhuntly Road and Hawthorn Road about 4.30am on Friday. No one was inside the shop at the time.

Tayeh, who opened his Caulfield store three years ago, released a statement linking the fire to criticism of his public comments and social media posts about the Israel-Hamas conflict, which he said only advocated for a ceasefire and an end to the violence in the Middle East.

“Today’s arson attack will not waver my calling for peace and will not silence me,” Tayeh said in a statement.

“I am deeply troubled by the spread of rumours suggesting that we harbour antisemitic sentiments. I cannot stress enough that this could not be further from the truth.

“My participation in pro-Palestinian rallies was driven by a desire for peace and a ceasefire, not violence or division. I have lost 38 relatives in Palestine and I want the violence to stop.”

The Islamic Council of Victoria and several Palestinian groups released a statement calling on authorities to act after the fire, adding their “grave concern that this was an intentional act, amounting to a hate crime against [Tayeh] as a Palestinian and Muslim”.

Tayeh was captured on video leading a chant of “from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free” on a megaphone at a march in the CBD last month.

The Anti-Defamation League, a New York-based Jewish advocacy group, says on its website that the phrase “is an antisemitic slogan commonly featured in anti-Israel campaigns”.

Tayeh said that the chant “had been misinterpreted by some as a call for harm”. “I assure you, for us, it is a call for human rights and freedom, echoing the sentiments of Palestinian academic Yousef Munayyer,” he said.

Tayeh told The Age that he had asked prominent people in the Jewish community to tell him when they held their rallies, “so I can also come in solidarity and show my respect to them and their loved ones and their friends”.

“I wouldn’t just say that I’m a supporter of Palestine. I’m a supporter of peace,” Tayeh said.

Police are investigating the cause of the fire. Credit: Simon Schluter

The MP for Caulfield, deputy Liberal leader David Southwick, called for calm while acknowledging many were concerned about the suspicious fire.

“I know tensions are running high and people are feeling vulnerable, but we must remain calm and allow police to investigate,” Southwick said.

Victoria Police said detectives are still keen to speak to any witnesses to the Caulfield fire or anyone that may have seen any suspicious activity in the area at the time.

Anyone who witnessed the incident, has CCTV, dashcam footage or any other information that could assist police is urged to contact Crime Stoppers on 1800 333 000 or submit a confidential report online.

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