Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, US Ambassador Dan Shapiro, police and Israel Fire Service officials and representatives of foreign fire crews gathered at the Hatzor Air Base, near Be’er Sheva on Tuesday to celebrate the contributions of foreign volunteer and professional firefighters who helped battle a wave of brush fires last week that destroyed more than 530 homes, left more than 1600 people homeless and destroyed tens of thousands of dunams of forest and open spaces around the country.
Prime Minister Netanyahu was scheduled to attend, but had to cancel because he is recovering from the flu.
Erdan praised Russia, Turkey, Greece, France, Spain, and the United States for providing aircraft that dumped tons of water and fire retardant around the country, as well as fire crews from Egypt, Jordan, Italy, Cyprus and the Palestinian Authority, who responded to Israel’s request for assistance.
There were no human casualties during the fires thanks to the bravery of the Israel Police and firefighters, and thanks to our friends from abroad who stepped up and helped in our hour of need, Erdan said.
Erdan also addressed accusations, believed by many Israelis to be true, that many or most of the 1,773 fires that hit the country from November 18-26 were intentionally set by Arabs as a form of terror attack. He said his ministry maintains a “zero tolerance” policy for arson terrorism and added that police will spare no effort to bring the perpetrators to justice.
However, Israel Police cautioned against drawing conclusions about the nature of the fires before the investigations have been completed. Spokespeople said that to date investigators have looked into dozens of fires, including many suspected arson attacks for motivated by Palestinian nationalism. But they added that investigations alone do not indicate guilt.
“We wish to clarify that it is inappropriate to relate to announcements that people have been arrested or reports about investigations as announcements that conclusions have been drawn as a result of the investigations,” police said in a statement. “The fact that there is a fire is being investigated is not an indication that the fire was intentionally set. We also investigate [fires that were] apparently caused by careless behavior.”
At least 35 people have been detained on suspicion of arson.