Two Israeli Arabs arrested on suspicion of deliberately starting brush fires have confessed to the crimes, police reportedly told ministers at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday.
The suspects were said to from the Israeli Arab towns of Umm al-Fahm and Deir Hanna in northern Israel, the Hebrew-language Ynet news website reported. The report did not specify which fires the two admitted to igniting or offer details on the suspects.
While many of the fires that ravaged towns and cities nationwide since Tuesday have been caused by negligence, officials say at least some of the blazes were started by nationalistically motivated Arab arsonists and have vowed to crack down on the perpetrators.
On Sunday, officials offered assurances that the wave of wildfires that swept across the country over the past six days had mostly come to an end, at least for the time being, but fresh blazes were later reported in northern Israel.
At least 35 people have been arrested since Thursday on suspicion of setting fires or inciting others to do so. More than 15 were Palestinians arrested by the Israel Defense Forces and Shin Bet security service, an army spokesperson said. At least 10 of those held are Israeli Arabs, according to Hebrew media reports. Police did not offer a detailed breakdown of how many were being detained for incitement and how many for arson.
Police chief Roni Alsheich said Sunday that there had been similar arson attacks in the past and that they should be considered acts of terror, Army Radio reported.
“If setting the fire was deliberate it is definitely terror,” Alsheich said during a visit to the West Bank settlement of Halamish, where a fire destroyed 18 homes on Friday night. “By the way, that is nothing new, there have been arson incidents in the past. The concentration of a relatively large number of days, and the number of incidents and the weather conditions, brought about these results but there is nothing new and there were incidents like this in the past.”
Alsheich said the security services are equipped to deal with terror and hinted that Israel was prepared to employ more stringent measures if necessary.
“We have good tools for dealing with terror — we haven’t yet taken advantage of them; we will review things and if we think that the measures are lacking we will demand them… There are sufficient measures in the Israeli book of laws.”
Earlier Sunday, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said there was “proof” that 17 of 110 recorded wildfires were caused by arsonists, and authorities “were still investigating the other incidents.”
Authorities estimate that since Tuesday, some 130,000 dunams (32,124 acres) have been destroyed, approximately 30 percent more than a major blaze in the forests around Haifa six years ago.
Haifa city officials said Saturday that this week’s fires torched some 28,000 dunams (6,900 acres) of land in the city since Thursday.
At least 60,000 of the city’s residents were evacuated Thursday while firefighters battled to contain a blaze that had entered a dozen of the city’s neighborhoods from the nearby Carmel Forest.
Most had returned home by Sunday morning, but an estimated 1,600 residents remained without homes. Between 400 and 530 apartments were said to be completely destroyed by the flames. Dozens of homes in other locales have also been damaged by separate wildfires during the wave.
It was not immediately clear that the motive of all the arsonists was terrorism. Israeli security officials on Saturday night gave preliminary indications that weather conditions were the prime cause of the initial wave of fires. From Wednesday and into the weekend, security officials and politicians indicated that arson was being investigated in some cases.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday there was “no doubt” some of the fires were started deliberately. “There is a price to pay for the crimes committed, there is a price to pay for arson terrorism,” he said.
The Magen David Adom rescue service reported Saturday that among the 133 people treated by the organization for fire-related injuries, one was seriously hurt and three others were moderately injured.
Throughout the week, firefighting equipment from the US, Russia, Turkey, Greece, France, Spain, Canada and the Palestinian Authority joined Israeli crews in dumping tons of water and retardants on the fires around Israel and the West Bank.