Amid signs that the wave of wildfires that have blighted Israel since Tuesday was being brought under control, Israeli security officials on Saturday night gave preliminary indications that weather was the prime cause of the initial blazes but that arsonists increasingly jumped on the bandwagon increasingly from Wednesday and into the weekend.
Israeli security forces have arrested more than 30 people suspected of either arson or encouraging others to commit arson since Tuesday, as the dozens of wildfires have swept through the country, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses and forcing tens of thousands to flee. At least 28 were still in custody on Saturday night, of whom more than 15 were Palestinians.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said most of those who remain in custody are West Bank Palestinians, with “a small minority” of Israeli Arabs.
Security officials have pointed to arsonists as being to blame for at least some of the fire outbreaks in Haifa — where the flames did the most damage, forcing the evacuation of more than 60,000 people on Thursday, and rendering over 400 homes unlivable — but have given no indication of how central arson was to the Haifa fires.
Fires that devastated the West Bank settlement of Halamish overnight Friday, meanwhile, were “apparently the result of arson by a gang of Palestinians,” Channel 10 reported on Saturday night. Security officials were quoted as saying that petrol bombs had been found at the scene.
This report was unconfirmed, however, as were reports that fires Friday at Nataf, a Jerusalem hills community that suffered heavy damage and where Rama’s Kitchen restaurant was destroyed, were started by a petrol bomb thrown from the adjacent Palestinian village of Katana. An earlier blaze in the area was likely caused after a mini-bonfire used by road workers to heat coffee was not properly doused.
Officials said Saturday it was exaggerated to consider the arson as constituting some kind of “arson intifada,” Channel 10 reported, and that most of the suspects were 16-20 year-olds with no record of security offenses who had jumped on the bandwagon after the first fires, and were not affiliated with any organization or working in any hierarchy.
Nonetheless, in a Channel 2 interview, Erdan spoke of “a new kind of terror,” and said that whereas in the past there was incitement on social media that “encouraged people to go out and stab and car-ram” Israelis, this new version “now encourages them to go out and burn people alive, burn communities alive.”
He indicated that punishments used for terrorists, including the demolition of offenders’ homes, should be used in these cases, too, where the offender had committed or encouraged arson out of Palestinian nationalist motives.
Erdan stressed that the fires were not necessarily over, but were broadly under control, and that emergency forces were deployed to deal with new outbreaks. “A lot can happen between now and Tuesday,” when the weather is set to change and winds to die down, “but with God’s help, we should be able to deal with all events.”
Channel 2 said there had been 528 “points of fire” on Friday, and “only” 283 on Saturday, indicating that the blazes were tapering off somewhat. It was not clear what was defined as a “point of fire,” however.
Erdan stressed that nobody had been killed in the wave of fire, and claimed “all the lessons have been learned” from a 2010 Carmel Forest fire in which 44 people were killed. He rejected concerns that Israel was over-reliant on assistance from overseas allies, or that the damage caused by the fires in places like Haifa and Zichron Yaakov pointed to inadequate precautions against the spread of what has become an annual threat of fires at this time of year.