Officials say evidence of widespread arson unclear as fires burn overnight in many parts of Israel

Officials say evidence of widespread arson unclear as fires burn overnight in many parts of Israel

Over 75,000 evacuated from Haifa; fires rage in Galilee, Jerusalem foothills; Druze villagers open homes to evacuees as Palestinian firefighters pitch in

Firefighters battle wildfires in Haifa, Thursday, Nov. 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Israeli security officials warned against jumping to conclusions about the cause of the wave of fires that has struck Israel in recent days, Channel 10 reported late Thursday.


The fires have cut a path of destruction across several of the country’s forests, and in several places entered residential areas. More than 75,000 residents were evacuated from Haifa, the country’s third-largest city, on Thursday as dozens of fire crews and 12 fire-fighting planes battled to halt the blaze that was tearing through some of the city’s mountainside neighborhoods adjacent to the Carmel Forest.

Citing the hundreds of separate fires reported since Tuesday, political leaders from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan to Education Minister Naftali Bennett have charged that Arab arsonists are behind part of the scourge.

All three called the alleged arson “terrorism” on Thursday.

Several arsonists have been caught, Arabs among them, police officials said, though they did not identify the suspects. Meanwhile, many Arabic-speaking social media users in Israel and abroad have cheered on the fires, causing the Arabic-language hashtag label “Israel is burning” to reach the third-most trending tag on Twitter in several nearby Arab countries.

But according to security officials early Friday, the evidence for a widespread campaign of arson remains ambiguous. Investigators have said a large portion of the blazes, as many as half by some accounts, have clearly been caused by accidents and/or the exceptionally dry and windy weather of the last few days, while some indicate arson, and still others are under investigation.

Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich established a special investigative unit on Thursday to determine the cause of the fires and help locate arsonists. Earlier Thursday, he acknowledged arson “in some cases… presumably out of nationalistic motives.”

In the field, firefighters continued to focus their attention on Haifa, where tens of thousands feared for their homes late Thursday as a forest fire was blown across at least 11 city neighborhoods that border on the Carmel Forest.

No one has yet been killed in the massive spate of fires, which has claimed dozens of homes in communities from the northern Galilee to the Jerusalem hills. But officials said many dozens have been injured. In Haifa alone, over 130 were treated for smoke inhalation during Thursday.

Large areas of Haifa were without power. Earlier on Thursday the city’s Prison 6, a military jail, was evacuated. On Thursday night 270 prisoners in the nearby Damon jail were also evacuated.

Schools and kindergartens were canceled on Friday in areas of Haifa that were evacuated. Authorities were warning residents not to return to their homes until instructed to do so, and calling on anyone who has not yet left to evacuate immediately.

There were many blazes in other parts of the country throughout the day. In the evening, a fire broke out near Shuafat in East Jerusalem and two houses were evacuated. One firefighter was lightly injured near Shaar Hagai, close to the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Route 1 highway.

A fire was still raging but was said to be contained near Dolev in the West Bank.

With the exception of Haifa, the fires have mostly been contained nationwide, according to Public Security Minister Erdan.

More than 300 firefighters were working through the night to try battle the blazes, supported by IDF soldiers and units from the army’s Home Front Command.

Several nations have also answered Israel’s call for help by providing planes and other equipment, some of which were immediately deployed against the blazes.

The fires have also brought communities together. Dozens of organizations and local councils, including the Islamic Movement in Israel, the Kibbutz Movement, the Bnei Akiva youth movement and the Zionist Union party, set up services to enable the public to host evacuees in their homes.

Popular radio stations, including the army-run Galgalatz music station, have turned their Facebook pages into bulletin boards for offers and requests for help.

In a statement, the Islamic Movement in Israel, a group that works to promote Islam in the country, said it was establishing an emergency situation room in the town of Kfar Qassem and announced its “willingness to help and take in families evacuated from the fire incidents all over the country.

“In all of the Arab communities the hosting is for citizens, Arabs, Christians, and Jews, without differentiation,” the movement said. “Dozens of families from the Arab population are prepared to host families harmed by the fires in Haifa and the country, Jews and Arabs alike.”

In the Galilee, Druze villages have already welcomed in Jewish and Muslim residents evacuated from Haifa.

Israeli crews were even joined Thursday night by eight Palestinian firetrucks and 40 firefighters, who were taking part in the battle to contain the massive blaze in Haifa and at Shaar Hagai.


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