Wildfires continued to blaze through Israel on Thursday, marking the third day in an increasingly serious series of conflagrations, some of which, government ministers say, were set purposefully.
While the first few fires were thought to have begun naturally and spread rapidly through Israel’s dry country, “There is also some evidence of arson,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said during a briefing at the Fire and Rescue Service coastal district command center on Wednesday.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan echoed the premiere when he told Army Radio Thursday morning that at least fifty percent of the fires were caused by arsonists.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett went a step further, obliquely identifying the arsonists as Arabs, or those to whom “the land does not belong”.
“Only someone who this land does not belong to would be capable of setting fire to it,” he wrote in a Tweet on Wednesday.
Culture and Sport Minister Miri Regev put out a call to “find the terrorists who are burning our forests and endangering human lives.”
Senior Hamas leader praises forest fires raging across Israel. Suspected arson as start of a fire. Ignition device found. pic.twitter.com/4OXrtMrVXr
— Israel Breaking (@IsraelBreaking) November 23, 2016
The first fires were reported on Tuesday in the northern city of Zichron Yaakov, the Gush Etzion bloc, Dolev, the Galilee, and Nataf, a community near Jerusalem. By Wednesday, they had spread and dozens of new fires broke out, though by Wednesday evening some of the bigger blazes had been brought under control.
However, on Thursday it was clear that the danger was not over as smoke and fire began approaching the city of Haifa. At the time of writing, tens of thousands of people were in the process of evacuating from the city, with government officials telling residents to flee. Dozens have been treated for smoke inhalation.
“The fire is not under control, residents should quickly evacuate,” said Haifa’s fire chief, Walla News reported. Residents of eleven different neighborhoods were warned to leave, leading to major traffic jams throughout the metropolis.
— StandWithUs (@StandWithUs) November 24, 2016
Students from the University of Haifa and the Technion, Haifa’s two major universities, have been evacuated, various news sources reported.
Authorities say that a fire was deliberately set near Haifa’s fire department in order to paralyze it, stopping efforts to fight the blaze.
Fires have also broken out in Modi’in and Talmon, a nearby community where yards and houses were burned by the fire. Thousands of dunams of wild brush have been destroyed, along with trees and buildings.
“These are terrible scenes to look at,” said Israel Parks and Nature Authority director Shaul Goldstein. “A whole world has been burnt.”
He also emphasized that the fires had been purposefully set, saying, “These fires are not predestined.”
Netanyahu put a call out to neighboring countries for help, asking for more firefighting planes and personnel. Four planes from Greece and Cyprus, along with 49 fire-fighting staff, arrived in Israel on Thursday and are expected to go into action on Friday.
Firefighting airplanes from Greece & Cyprus arrive in Israel to assist in the battle against the fires plaguing the country in past 3 days. pic.twitter.com/oGZ3BTENyb
— Israel ישראל (@Israel) November 24, 2016
Officials warned that the fires were likely to get worse, not better, as dry weather conditions and high winds in Israel create an ideal environment for spreading fires.