Police on Tuesday said they arrested three people on suspicion of causing a blaze at a nature reserve close to the Dead Sea, amid reports that 500 dunams (123 acres) of vegetation had been damaged at Einot Tsukim, including rare species of plants.
According to a statement from police, they gave chase to a vehicle after officers observed it “traveling suspiciously” on Route 90 at around 2 a.m. The driver refused to stop the vehicle.
After the car was eventually stopped and searched, a strong smell of fuel was said to be emanating from the vehicle and its occupants’ clothing, and the three were arrested on suspicion of starting the fire.
Two of the suspects are residents of East Jerusalem and one is from the West Bank town of al-Azariya — all are in their 20s.
Route 90 was closed Tuesday morning as firefighters battled to control the blaze. A spokesperson for the fire brigade said the fire was finally brought under control at 8:20 a.m.
The highway was blocked to drivers between the Matzuki Dragut and Kalia junctions and motorists were advised to avoid the area and find alternative routes.
According to Hebrew-language news site Ynet, 16 firefighting teams, water tankers, military firefighters, a police helicopter and firefighting planes were all deployed to the scene.
Hundreds of thousands of Israelis are expected to visit nature reserves across the country Tuesday to mark the holiday of Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year.
A fire at Einot Tsukim 10 years ago destroyed 2,000 dunams (494 acres), killing many animals.