A major forest fire that broke out in the hills outside Jerusalem on Friday afternoon spread and gathered force into the night. Centered in the area of Nataf, the blaze was brought under control late Friday night, but residents, who were evacuated in mid-afternoon, were told not to return for the time being.
Multiple teams of firefighters battled the blaze in the Ma’ale Hahamisha and Nataf areas through Friday afternoon and into the night. At least 20 planes were operating in the area, tackling the flames from the skies.
The fire expanded and progressed through the afternoon and evening. Initially none of the homes in Ma’ale Hahamisha or Nataf were thought to be in danger, police said, but in mid-afternoon they ordered the evacuation of Nataf, and said homes were under threat.
Some Nataf residents were taking refuge in the community center at the nearby Arab town of Abu Ghosh on Friday night.
Rama’s Kitchen, a famed Nataf restaurant, was destroyed, and much of the owner’s home was destroyed in the flames as well. A wedding was taking place at the restaurant when firefighters ordered an urgent evacuation.
By Friday evening, the nearby West Bank settlement of Mevo Horon was also in danger.
Only late on Friday did firefighters bring the flames under control. The access road to Nataf was kept closed Friday night, however.
Channel 2 reported that initial suspicions were that the blaze was started by a petrol bomb thrown from the nearby Palestinian village of Katana. This report was not confirmed.
The blaze was part of a wave of forest and brush fires that have cut a swath of destruction across several of Israel’s forests since Tuesday, and in several places entered residential areas.
Another fire broke out in the Binyamina region of central Israel on Friday. Two teams of firefighters soon brought the blaze under control, Walla reported.
No one has been killed in the fires, but hundreds have been injured, dozens of homes burned and, in Haifa, tens of thousands were evacuated.
Dozens of firefighters spent the night trying to save Beit Meir, near Abu Ghosh outside of Jerusalem, but were unable stop the flames reaching a “great many” homes, police said. There were no reports of injuries as the village’s residents had already been evacuated.
Jerusalem police chief Yoram Halevy said one suspected arsonist was in custody Friday morning. “We believe there are arsonists out there, but also weather conditions that allow this to spark [without human aid],” Halevy told Army Radio.
“We spotted two suspects [near Beit Meir], at least one was arrested. He’s being taken for questioning, but it’s still too early to say he started the fire.”
The man was among more than a dozen suspects arrested on suspicion of sparking at least some of the hundreds of fires that have threatened Israeli towns and forests. He was identified by the Ynet news site as a Palestinian.
Among the suspects are several whom the Shin Bet domestic security service and police believe are responsible for starting some of the devastating fires that ripped through Haifa on Thursday, causing the evacuation of more than 60,000 people and damage to hundreds of homes.
Citing the hundreds of separate fires reported since Tuesday, political leaders from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan to Education Minister Naftali Bennett have charged that Arab arsonists are behind part of the scourge. All three Israeli leaders called the alleged arson “terrorism” on Thursday.
In one instance a car was found near a fire outside Oranit in the West Bank that had fake license plates. Rags soaked in gasoline were found in the car.
Meanwhile, many Arabic-speaking social media users in Israel and abroad have cheered on the fires, causing the Arabic-language hashtag label “Israel is burning” to reach the third-most trending tag on Twitter in several nearby Arab countries.
But some Israeli security officials have warned against jumping to conclusions about the cause of the wave of fires, saying the evidence for a widespread campaign of arson remains ambiguous.
Investigators have said a large portion of the blazes, as many as half by some accounts, have clearly been caused by accidents and/or the exceptionally dry and windy weather of the last few days, while some indicate arson, and still others are under investigation.
Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich established a special investigative unit on Thursday to determine the cause of the fires and help locate arsonists. Earlier Thursday, he acknowledged arson “in some cases… presumably out of nationalistic motives.”
Israel was expected to receive further help in fighting the fires on Friday after several nations answered Israel’s call. Three firefighting planes from Greece and one from Cyprus are already in action, while overnight one plane from Turkey, two from Croatia, two from Italy and two from Russia arrived and will join the fight Friday, the Prime Minister’s Office said.
Also, the massive US-based supertanker, a converted Boeing 747 that can operate at night, landed in Friday evening.
In Beit Meir, at least 10 buildings had been burned by 6 a.m. Friday, and small fires remained in public spaces in the village.
Also early Friday, the village of Kaabiya in the Galilee saw flames from a nearby forest reach the edges of the community. Police evacuated five families, but said the move was a precaution, as firefighters expected to contain the blaze.
There were many blazes in other parts of the country Thursday and throughout the night. In the evening, a fire broke out near Shuafat in East Jerusalem and two houses were evacuated. One firefighter was lightly injured near Sha’ar Hagai, close to the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Route 1 highway.
Another fire was reported early Friday between the Galilee Arab towns of Kabul and Tamra. There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage.