Tens of thousands of residents have been ordered to leave Israel's third largest city as wildfires rage across central and northern parts of the country. Driven by dry, windy weather, the fire raced through parts of Haifa, a city of around 300,000 in the north of the country.
Israeli police have arrested four Palestinians in connection with one of several large fires that damaged homes and prompted the evacuation of thousands of people over the past few days. Spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said on Thursday (24 November) that police are investigating all possible causes, including arson.
He says the blazes started three days ago at the Neve Shalom community near Jerusalem where Israelis and Arabs live together.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the leader of the far-right Jewish Home party, said whoever set the fires could not have been Jewish, hinting Arabs or Palestinians were behind them. Police gave no indication of who was to blame but did say they had reason to believe arson was responsible in some cases.
The hashtag #Israelisburning trended on social media as some Arabs and Palestinians celebrated the fires and outraged Israelis reacted to their tweets.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attributed the fires to "natural and unnatural" causes and some Israeli officials referred to an "arson intifada", a reference to previous Palestinian uprisings against Israel. Israeli's police chief Roni Alsheich told reporters that arsonists were suspected of setting some of the fires. "It's safe to assume that whoever is setting the fires isn't doing it only out of pyromania," he said. "It's safe to assume that if it is arson it is politically-motivated."
Fires are also burning in the forests west of Jerusalem and on central and northern hilltops and in parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. The military has called up about 500 reserve soldiers to back up the police and fire departments.
The government has sought assistance from neighbouring countries and further afield to tackle the conflagration. Greece, Cyprus, Croatia, Turkey and Russia offered help, with several aircraft already joining efforts to quell the blaze, dropping fire-retardant material to try to douse the heaviest fires and stem their spread.
Local weather forecasters have said the tinder-dry conditions – it has not rained in parts of Israel for months – and strong winds are set to continue for several days and they see little prospect of normal seasonal precipitation arriving. "Meteorology is not responsible but it is conducive to the spread of these fires," said Noah Wolfson, the chief executive of weather forecasting company Meteo-Tech. "The atmosphere will remain very dry, at least until Monday or Tuesday."
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