Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett on Thursday charged that many of the wave of fires blazing in numerous locations across Israel were arson, and called them “terrorism in every sense of the word.”
Israel’s police chief Roni Alsheich said on Thursday afternoon that there were “some cases of arson, and lots of cases that are not arson…. It’s likely that there is a nationalistic motive in some of the arson cases.” Alsheich added: “Some suspects have been arrested… I don’t think it is organized (arson).”
Yona Yohav, the mayor of Haifa, where tens of thousands of residents were evacuated from several neighborhoods in the course of Thursday, said earlier he knew of suspicions of arson, but had no definitive evidence.
Channel 2 said the Shin Bet security agency and police were examining the incidents, and that “troublemakers” had plainly seized on the brush fires, some of them the result of negligence, in order to start additional blazes.
Bennett described the fires as “a major wave of arson… terrorism in every sense of the word.”
He said ministers would be meeting shortly to take stock of the situation, and that the perpetrators would feel “the full weight of the law.”
The country’s top Arab lawmaker Ayman Odeh urged any people responsible for arson to stop and called them “the enemies of us all.”
Hours earlier, Odeh had hit back at Education Minister Bennett for suggesting late Wednesday that the fires had been intentionally set by non-Jews.
“To my regret, someone decided to exploit this dreadful situation to incite and to lash out at an entire community,” said Ayman Odeh, the head of the Joint (Arab) List Knesset faction.
“Whoever loves our homeland has to focus right now on putting out the fires and helping the injured and not on fanning hate.”
On Wednesday night, Bennett wrote on Twitter that the blazes could only have been set off by “someone who this land this does not belong to.”
Israel has been wracked by hundreds of brush fires since Tuesday, consuming homes and acres of forest and open land.
On Thursday, numerous fires broke out near the northern city of Haifa, prompting mass evacuations as forests, homes and business burned. By mid-afternoon, 100 people had been treated for fire-related injuries, mostly caused by smoke inhalation.
Odeh, born and raised in the mixed Jewish Arab city nestled between the sea and the Carmel mountain ridge, expressed dismay over the blazes.
“It’s hard to look at the Carmel mountain range going up in flames and the serious fires all over the country. I hope the fires will stop quickly before there is serious injury and further damage to the beautiful nature of our land.”
A spokesperson for the fire service said there were suspicions the blazes in Haifa had been set intentionally.
A police spokesperson said the cause of the fires, including the possibility of nationalistic arson, were being investigated.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said there was evidence at least some fires had been set by arsonists.
Bennett is head of the nationalist-religious Jewish Home party, a champion of the settlement enterprise and a strong opponent of the idea of a Palestinian state, on religious as well as security grounds.