IDF soldiers arrested overnight Saturday-Sunday two Palestinian men suspected of lighting fires near the West Bank settlement bloc of Gush Etzion, amid fears that new blazes could erupt as dry conditions persisted nearly a week into a fierce rash of blazes that have spread across the country.
While many of the fires to wreak havoc across the country since Tuesday have been caused by negligence, officials say at least some of the blazes were started by nationalistically motivated arsonists and have vowed to crack down on the perpetrators.
Troops apprehended the two men in their home village of Nahalim, south of Jerusalem, according to an statement from the army.
“Additional steps” were also taken against the owner of a gas station in the area suspected of selling gasoline to arsonists for use in lighting fires, the statement added without specifying the specific measures.
In all, 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 being held are Israeli Arabs, according to Hebrew media reports.
It was not immediately clear that the motive of all the arsonists was nationalistic. Israeli security officials on Saturday night gave preliminary indications that weather conditions were the prime cause of the initial wave of fires. Arsonists became a factor from Wednesday and into the weekend.
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.
During a visit on Saturday night to communities damaged by fires, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan called for the demolition of the homes of those found guilty of arson in a similar measure to that taken against Palestinians that have carried out deadly terrorist attacks in the past.
“We have tools that have been proven to work, such as destroying the homes of terrorists,” he told Channel 2 news. “If we can destroy the home of a terrorist who stabbed or shot someone, we must also destroy the homes of the arsonists who carried out their attacks for nationalistic motives. There’s no difference.”
In an interview Sunday morning, though, Erdan joined other officials in dismissing the idea that the rash of blazes were part of an orchestrated arson intifada.
Meanwhile, authorities are preparing for the possibility of further fires across the country.
Firefighters will remain on highest alert at least until Friday, officials said. More favorable weather, including a rise in humidity and drop in wind, is expected by Tuesday, while forecasts look for rain by Thursday, ending the unseasonable dry spell that started and exacerbated much of the wave of fires.
Scattered small fires were reported in the Jerusalem area, with firefighters quickly dousing them.
In the West Bank settlement of Halamish, where a Friday night fire ravaged 18 homes, residents are expected to be able to return Sunday.
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. The overall tally is likely higher, officials said, as some people – one estimate suggested as many as 50 – may have gone to hospitals on their own for injuries such as smoke inhalation.
Meanwhile, the Nature and Parks Authority reported that some 30,000 dunams (7,400 acres) of national parks were burned. The Jewish National Fund, which plants and manages many of the country’s forests, said some 11,000 additional dunams (2,700 acres) of its own forests were also destroyed.
In all, as much as 130,000 dunams (32,000 acres) of natural forests and brush were destroyed, about 30 percent more than the territory affected by the Carmel Forest fire of 2010. A great deal of the Judean Hills National Park and the Kfir Nature Reserve were burned.
Haifa city officials said Saturday that the fires ravaged some 28,000 dunams (6,900 acres) of land in the city since Thursday. Between 400 and 530 homes were damaged by the fires there.