Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon approved on Saturday evening a stipend of 2,500 shekels ($650) per person for those who have fled the raging fires nationwide over the past five days and could not return to their homes either because they were destroyed or are currently uninhabitable.
The Finance Ministry held an emergency meeting Saturday night with officials from the city of Haifa, where massive fires on Thursday forced the evacuation of some 60,000 people. Most were allowed to return Friday, but close to 2,000 homes have been damaged, of which 500 have been deemed uninhabitable, according to authorities.
“We will stand by our residents even after the smoke clears,” Kahlon said, adding that he gave instructions to officials to “be clear, be generous, and don’t let them [those affected] drown in paperwork or be passed around from representative to representative.”
“It’s not an easy task to assess the damage but it is our duty to help residents rebuild their lives,” he said.
Israel’s Nature and Parks Authority said Saturday that the territory burned over the past days, some 130,000 dunams (32,124 acres) of natural forests and bushes, was about 30 percent greater than the territory affected in the Carmel Forest fire of 2010. Most of the territory burned includes the Judean Hills national park and the Kfir nature reserve.
Haifa city officials said Saturday that the fires have ravaged some 28,000 dunams (approximately 6,900 acres) of land in the city since Thursday.
It appeared late Saturday that the worst of the fires — some of which are believed to have been started deliberately — were over. But dry weather and strong winds have played a major part in the spread of the flames, and rain was not forecast for several more days.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said late Saturday that the fires were not necessarily over, but were broadly under control, and that emergency forces were deployed to deal with new outbreaks. “A lot can happen between now and Tuesday,” when the weather is set to change and winds to die down, “but with God’s help, we should be able to deal with all events.”
Channel 2 said there had been 528 “points of fire” on Friday, and “only” 283 on Saturday, indicating that the blazes were tailing off somewhat. It was not clear what was defined as a “point of fire,” however.
Erdan stressed that nobody had been killed in the wave of fire, and claimed “all the lessons have been learned” from a 2010 Carmel Forest fire in which 44 people were killed. He rejected concerns that Israel was over-reliant on assistance from overseas allies, or that the damage caused by the fires in places like Haifa and Zichron Yaakov pointed to inadequate precautions against the spread of what has become an annual threat of fires at this time of year.
Firefighting teams on Saturday brought under control large fires in the West Bank settlements of Halamish and the Jerusalem hills area of Nataf, with some residents allowed to return to their homes.
Blazes were also reported near the West Bank settlements of Dolev, Alfei Menashe and Karnei Shomron, although there were no evacuations there. In northern Israel, firefighters on Saturday brought under control a fire that broke out at the Harashim community in the Galilee, and residents were allowed to return.
Near the northern city of Nazareth Illit, six firefighting teams worked Saturday to extinguish a fire that broke out in the Churchill Forest, the Ynet news website reported. Over the past 24 hours there were five fires in the forest.
Israel had enlisted the help of a number of countries in battling the blazes. Firefighting teams from Cyprus, Russia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Croatia and Italy made their way to Israel over the past two days to assist in putting out the fires. Other countries also dispatched firefighting aircraft, as did the US which sent a supertanker, considered the largest of firefighting planes in the world.
The Palestinian Authority has also joined the efforts to extinguish the blazes, sending 41 firefighters and eight trucks to massive fires in the northern city of Haifa.
The US supertanker was among 29 planes working to dump tons of water and retardants on fires at various locations across the country on Saturday, on the fifth day of the wave of massive fires, some of which are believed to be arson.
The supertanker launched its first operation in the Jerusalem hills Saturday where fires have been raging since Tuesday and where residents were evacuated on Friday. On Saturday afternoon, residents of the Jerusalem hills village of Nataf were allowed to return to assess the damage. At least a dozen homes were consumed by the fire in the area, as was the famed Nataf restaurant Rama’s Kitchen.
The main highway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Route 1, was shut briefly on Saturday afternoon between the Sha’ar Hagai and Horesh interchanges, as the massive plane went into action.
Israeli security forces have arrested more than 30 people suspected of either arson or encouraging others to commit arson since Tuesday, as the dozens of wildfires have swept through the country At least 23 were still in custody on Saturday night, of whom more than 10 were Palestinians.
Over the past few days, security forces have arrested over 10 suspected Palestinian arsonists attempting to ignite fires…
On Saturday afternoon, IDF troops called to a northern West Bank area where figures were reportedly seen fleeing before a fire was sparked discovered a smoldering pile of tires, Ynet reported.
Firefighting teams were battling the fire near the Um Rehan forest, a nature reserve northwest of the Palestinian city of Jenin.
Some politicians have pointed the finger at members of the Arab community, saying the fires were started on purpose in nationalistic acts of terror.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday there was “no doubt” some of the fires had been deliberate. “There is a price to pay for the crimes committed, there is a price to pay for arson terrorism,” he said.
Arab Israeli leaders have argued that their communities, which make up about 17.5% of the country’s citizens, are as much affected by the fires as the Jewish population.
Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich said Friday night that investigators know who set fire to the woods near Nataf, and that authorities “were prepared to thwart” those involved through “deterrence and catching suspects, through observers and patrols in the sky and on land.”
“These are very simple terror attacks,” he told Army Radio. “Generally the attackers themselves know about it only a few minutes beforehand, so we can’t make preventative arrests.”
Police investigating a massive blaze that hit the Jerusalem hills community of Beit Meir said Saturday that the fire that began early Friday could have been accidentally started by flares from an Israeli Air Force surveillance plane that was tracking two people fleeing the area. Footage from the plane showed flames suddenly appear from the area where the two were later arrested.
It was still unclear how the fire started, or whether the two — who Ynet said were known to police as thieves — were involved in arson or were fleeing after trying to carry out a robbery in the village. The pair have been remanded in custody for six days.
Dozens of firefighters spent the night trying to save Beit Meir, near Abu Ghosh, 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.
The Ministry of Environmental Protection warned Saturday of high air pollution in southern Israel, in particular in the Arava region, the Dead Sea and the Red Sea resort city of Eilat, Ynet reported. The ministry recommended that anyone suffering from heart and lung problems, the elderly, children and pregnant women in those areas remain indoors. Lower levels of air pollution were also reported in the rest of the country, after days of fires filled the air with thick smoke in multiple locations.
- Israel & the Region
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- 2016 fires in Israel
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- Roni Alsheich
- Finance Ministry
- Karnei Shomron
- Moshe Kahlon
- Gilad Erdan
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