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As Wildfires Rage, Israel Suggests Arson and Asks for Foreign Help


Wildfires Spread Across Northern Israel

Dry conditions and strong winds on Thursday whipped up wildfires near the port city of Haifa in northern Israel, forcing the evacuation of tens of thousands of people, damaging property and devouring forests.

By REUTERS and THE ASSOCIATED PRESS on Publish Date November 24, 2016.

Photo by Ariel Schalit/Associated Press.

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JERUSALEM — Parts of the port city of Haifa in northern Israel were ablaze on Thursday as wildfires raged through the country for a third day, devouring forests, damaging homes and prompting the evacuation of tens of thousands of people.

Asked how long Haifa was likely to be battling the blazes, Mayor Yona Yahav told reporters, “This is a question that has to be referred to God.”

Israeli officials said the fires had been fanned by unusually strong winds and made worse by a dry atmosphere, but they also said they suspected that many of them had been caused by arson and negligence. Dozens of people have been slightly affected by smoke inhalation, but no serious injuries or fatalities have been reported.

Gilad Erdan, Israel’s public security minister, told Army Radio that the professional assessment was that almost half the fires were the result of arson.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attributed the fires to “natural and unnatural” causes and said that “any fire caused by arson or incitement to arson is terrorism in every sense of the word, and we will treat it as such.”

Arab leaders in Israel protested the widespread allegations that Palestinian nationalists were behind many of the fires, saying their land was burning, too, and they condemned what they viewed as unfair accusations against Israel’s Arab citizens, who make up about a fifth of the population. Ahmad Tibi, a veteran Arab lawmaker in the Israeli Parliament, wrote on Twitter: “I called Yona Yahav. Our homes are open to the evacuees. Sad and painful. Let’s join hands to overcome the fire and let’s also douse the flames of incitement.”

Mr. Netanyahu spoke on Thursday with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who promised to send two huge firefighting aircraft.

Firefighting planes and teams from Cyprus and Greece had already arrived, and the Israeli police and Foreign Ministry said that more help was on the way from Croatia, Italy and Turkey. The Palestinian Authority also sent some fire engines to tackle the fires.

The Israeli emergency services are more prepared and better equipped than they were in 2010, when a fierce fire raged through the Carmel Forest area near Haifa. More than 40 people, most of them officer cadets from the prison service, were killed in that blaze when their bus was engulfed in flames as they were on their way to evacuate a prison.

That episode counted as Israel’s worst natural disaster. The government of Mr. Netanyahu, who assumed office in 2009, was accused of being woefully unprepared. It was the first time that Israel, which often provides doctors and aid workers for disasters abroad, had to rely on international help.

Israel has since added firefighting planes, but they do not have the capacity of larger aircraft like those that Russia was expected to send, nor can they operate at night.


A blaze in Haifa on Thursday. Israeli officials said the fires had been fanned by unusually strong winds and made worse by a dry atmosphere, but they also said they suspected that many of them had been caused by arson and negligence.

Jack Guez/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The police and emergency services have been going door to door evacuating homes, schools, two prisons, neighborhoods and, in some cases, whole communities.

Noy Parati, a student at the Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, described scenes of panic, with people pushing one another out of the way to evacuate. “As soon as they tell me where to go, I will leave,” Ms. Parati told Israeli television, adding, “Everyone is trying to escape.”

Yael Hamer, a resident of the Romema neighborhood of Haifa, said people were leaving on foot and by car. “My house was filled with smoke,” she told reporters by phone from her car, with the sirens of fire engines and ambulances audible in the background. “And the smell,” she added, “it was impossible to stay there.”

Local authorities in Haifa said they had set up gathering points and temporary shelters in community centers, in an auditorium and in a stadium. The police reported heavy traffic on highways around the city, and the train service to and from the city was suspended. By nightfall, about a quarter of Haifa’s population of 280,000 had been instructed to evacuate.

The Israeli military said that it had deployed two search-and-rescue battalions from its Home Front Command to assist evacuation efforts, and that it had called up reservists to help fight the fires.

Several homes have been destroyed in recent days in the town of Zikhron Yaaqov, south of Haifa, and in Nataf, a village in the hills outside Jerusalem. Flames have also threatened Talmon, a Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank. And on Thursday night the police reported a fire near Shuafat, a Palestinian neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

The first major fire began in the forest surrounding Neve Shalom, known in Arabic as Wahat al-Salam, or Oasis of Peace, a small cooperative community about halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem where Israeli Jews and Arabs live together.

Despite the suspicion of arson in many cases, the Israeli authorities were cautious in assigning blame. But some Israeli news organizations were labeling the wave of fires an “arson intifada,” alluding to a Palestinian uprising.

Mr. Erdan, the public security minister, noted that Jewish extremists had been charged with arson attacks in the past, including one last year in the West Bank village of Duma that killed a Palestinian toddler and his parents. Mr. Erdan has instructed the police to focus efforts on locating incitement to arson on social networks.

By Thursday night, Mr. Erdan said, the fires had been brought under control, though there were fears that the weather conditions could whip up the flames again.

Some Palestinians were celebrating the fires on social media, posting congratulatory messages on Facebook. “Enjoy the burning of your homes, you Zionists,” one wrote. Others described the fires as divine retribution for legislation being advanced in Israel, with Mr. Netanyahu’s backing, to ban or restrict the use of loudspeakers by mosques and other houses of worship across Israel.

Ayman Odeh, another Arab member of the Israeli Parliament, noted that several Arab cities in northern Israel, such as Umm el-Fahm, had also been affected by the fires.

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