Amid warnings from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Israel will consider arson an act of terrorism, Israeli police have arrested at least 13 people suspected of starting a series of wildfires that have burned around the country for four days.
Fire officials suspect a firebomb thrown from the Palestinian village Katane caused a major fire that broke out Friday west of Jerusalem in the Judean Hills, the Israeli daily Haaretz reported.
Thirty firefighting crews and 20 air tankers have been dispatched to the area, the paper said, and several areas are ablaze in the West Bank as well.
The more than 250 fires this week have been fanned by hot, dry weather and high winds. A major fire in the northern port city of Haifa was brought under control Thursday after forcing the evacuation of about 80,000 people.
There is video evidence that the Haifa fire was an act of arson, a spokesman for the Haifa Fire Department told Israel’s Channel 2 Friday.
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A blaze Thursday in Zichron Ya’acov, about 20 miles south of Haifa, also was caused by arsonists, Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan said Thursday.
While several people have been treated for smoke inhalation, no serious injuries have been reported in the fires.
More than half the fires had been caused by arson, according to Israel’s Fire and Rescue Services operations chief, Shmulik Fridman.
Netanyahu said Thursday that authorities had found evidence of “encouragement to arson” on social media.
“Every fire caused by arson or incitement to arson is terror and will be treated as such,” he said.
The Israel Air Force is using 10 drones to find suspected arsonists and fires, Haaretz reported Friday, and air tankers that have arrived from Turkey, Russia, Croatia, Cyprus and Italy.
A leader of Israeli settlers said the fires are divine punishment for the government’s plans to uproot settlements, the news site Srugim reported.
In a pamphlet published Thursday, Rabbi Elyakim Levanon of the settler community of Elon Moreh wrote: “Strong winds usually carry rain but now all is dry and flammable. It is G-d’s hand that does it.”
He noted the Israeli government is delaying approval of a law that would legalize Jewish villages in the West Bank.
“Until the disgrace of the threat of eviction is lifted from Amona, Ofra and elsewhere, no rain will fall,” he said, referring to the Jewish outposts.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement charged Israeli officials were “exploiting the fire” to accuse Palestinians, BBC News reported.
Some Israeli media have speculated about a possible “fire intifada,” or uprising.
Seeking to dampen tensions, Ayman Odeh, an Israeli Arab MP from Haifa, which has a mixed Arab-Jewish population, said arsonists were “the enemies of us all.”
Palestinian firefighting crews were dispatched from the West Bank to help efforts in Haifa, the BBC said.
The team’s head, Abdulatif Abu Amshah, said: “Firefighters, their aim is to stop fire. No need to look [at] religion or anything else.”
The fires this week in Israel are the worst since 2010, when 44 people died in a fire on Mount Carmel, just south of Haifa.
The remarkable television series “Against all Odds: Israel Survives,” features first-hand accounts of how the Jewish nation has triumphed through four major wars and relentless terrorist attacks. Get the DVD set of the first season at the WND Superstore.