Israeli firefighters yesterday reined in a blaze that had spread across the nation’s third-largest city, Haifa, and forced tens of thousands of people to flee their homes, but continued to battle more than a dozen other fires around the country for the fourth day in a row.
About 60,000 people have yet to return to their homes as police and firefighting units were still heavily deployed in the Haifa area for fear that the fire could be reignited due to the rare dry, windy weather.
Though no serious injuries were caused, several dozen people were hospitalized for smoke inhalation. Hundreds of homes were damaged and, in a rare move, Israel on Thursday called up military reservists to join overstretched police and firefighters and made use of an international fleet of firefighting aircraft sent by several countries.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said a small village in the forests near Jerusalem was evacuated overnight as several homes there caught fire.
Overall, he said 12 people have been arrested across Israel on suspicion of arson. Israeli leaders have raised the possibility that Arab assailants had intentionally set the blazes.
The Haifa blaze was the most serious in a series of fires that have erupted across the nation in recent days. On a visit to the area on Thursday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said anyone implicated in setting the fires would be punished severely.
“It’s a crime for all intents and purposes and in our opinion it is terror for all intents and purposes,” he said.
He said that incitement to arson was also playing a role in spreading the fires.
Netanyahu did not elaborate on the identity or motives of the suspected arsonists, but Israeli officials typically use the term “terror” to refer to Arab or Palestinian militant activity.
Israel has been on edge during more than a year of Palestinian attacks, mostly stabbings, that have tapered off, but not halted, in recent months. Netanyahu has blamed Palestinian incitement for fueling those attacks.
Netanyahu’s accusations could test already brittle relations between Israel’s Jewish majority and its Arab minority, which has long suffered discrimination in Israel and says it has been slighted by rhetoric from Netanyahu and other Israeli officials in the past.
Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan told Channel 10 TV news that eight people had been arrested and that authorities had found “flammable materials and liquids poured in certain areas,” a find that pointed to arson.
He said arson was suspected in about half of the fires.
Israeli media said the Shin Bet internal security agency was helping search for perpetrators, while Erdan said: “We need to be prepared for a new type of terror.”
“It’s safe to assume that whoever is setting the fires isn’t doing it only out of pyromania,” Israeli police chief Roni Alsheich told reporters. “It’s safe to assume that if it is arson it is politically motivated.”
Ayman Odeh, the head of a joint Arab bloc of parties in Israel’s parliament and a Haifa native, appealed to Israelis to come together and abandon “politics” during the trying time.
“This is something that harms all of us. This is not a story of Arab or Jew. Whoever did this is an enemy of all of us,” he told Israeli Channel 2 TV news.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians offered to send firefighting teams to help combat the flames, according to the official Palestinian news agency WAFA.
Palestinian Civil Defense Director-General Yousef Nassar said the offer of assistance was “a humanitarian message.”
The Palestinians assisted Israel during a deadly wildfire in 2010. Israel’s response to the offer was not immediately known.
The fires began three days ago at the Neve Shalom community near Jerusalem where Israelis and Arabs live together.
Later, blazes erupted in the northern Israeli area of Zichron Yaakov and elsewhere near Jerusalem before the largest ones spread across Haifa.
The rash of fires is the worst since 2010, when Israel suffered the single deadliest wildfire in its history. That blaze burned out of control for four days, killed 42 people and was extinguished only after firefighting aircraft arrived from as far away as the US.
Israel has strengthened its firefighting capabilities since then, buying special planes that can drop large quantities of water on affected areas.
Several countries, including Russia, France, Cyprus, Turkey, Croatia, Greece and Italy were also sending assistance to battle this week’s blazes.
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