Huge forest fires near Jerusalem contained as terror suspicions mount

Authorities believe blazes were deliberately set — likely as nationalistic attacks by West Bank Palestinians; 2,650 dunams scorched; dozens evacuated

View of a forest fire raging in Lifta at the entrance to Jerusalem, on June 07, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
View of a forest fire raging in Lifta at the entrance to Jerusalem, on June 07, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Fire authorities increasingly believe several large wildfires that broke out on the outskirts of Jerusalem and in the West Bank were deliberate acts of arson, likely set by Palestinians, Hebrew media reported on Wednesday night.

Blazes that broke out in forested areas west of Jerusalem during the afternoon prompted the Israel Fire and Rescue Services to evacuate dozens of residents in the area.

Later in the afternoon, several more fires were ignited in the northern West Bank, including large blazes near the settlements of Ariel and Shavei Shomron.

By the evening, the fires were brought under control, although firefighting units were to remain on the ground throughout the night in case the flames restarted, Channel 13 reported.

There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage to property in the fires. An initial estimate put the area of scorched forest at 2,650 dunams (655 acres).

Investigators were gathering footage from security cameras to learn more about the cause.

Though officials were not giving a verdict, deliberate arson is being considered because the area where the fires broke out is close to Israel’s security barrier with the West Bank, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

Last month, when violent Palestinian rioting in East Jerusalem spread to mixed Jewish-Arab cities in Israel, several fires were started in the same area by West Bank Palestinians who threw Molotov cocktails over the barrier, the station said.

“We still haven’t come to a conclusion about the cause of the fire,” Jerusalem Fire and Rescue Services District Commander Nissim Twito told Channel 13. “We are in the middle of the investigation.”

“Based on the history of the area and the tension, it could be that the reason is nationalistic. At the moment, we don’t have an indication to say for certain that is the reason,” he said.

“At the moment I don’t know if this was arson. There is no doubt that this incident is a little complicated and strange” in that all the fires happened at the same time, Fire and Rescue Commissioner Dedi Simchi told Channel 12 News.

Earlier, Simchi said he was sure that the fires were manmade, but could not say if it was deliberate or negligence.

According to the fire services, the Jerusalem-area fire broke out on Mount Haruah in the Jerusalem hills, near the Neve Ilan moshav.

A firefighting plane works on extinguishing a forest fire raging in the area of the Arab-Israeli village of Abu Ghosh near Jerusalem, on June 9, 2021. (Photo by Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

Later in the afternoon, 29 teams of firefighters and 10 planes joined the effort to extinguish the massive blaze. Firefighting forces from other areas of Israel were also called in to assist in tackling the flames.

The fire services later ordered the evacuation of all residents of Kibbutz Ma’ale Hahamisha in the Judean hills. A second blaze reportedly broke out on the nearby Mount Eitan.

Residents were later able to return to their homes.

Roads and highways in the area were also briefly shut, including a portion of Route 1, the main highway connecting Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

At 2 p.m., the Israel Railways announced that it was halting trains on the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv line due to the fire. The trains resumed several hours later.

The ongoing corruption trial of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem was halted shortly before 3 p.m. due to the blaze.

View of a large fire that broke near Neve Ilan, outside Jerusalem on June 09, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A heavy pall of smoke hung over the Jerusalem area and the Environmental Protection Ministry recommended that people suffering from heart and lung disease, the elderly, children, and pregnant women remain indoors and avoid going outside unless absolutely necessary. It also recommended that the rest of the population limit outdoor physical activity, close windows, and use air conditioners.

Large teams of firefighters and volunteers also worked frantically to put out the fires in the West Bank.

Smoke rises from the site of a wildfire behind the village of Abu Gosh near Jerusalem, Wednesday, June 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

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