Since Tuesday, Israel’s firefighters have been battling an escalating wave of wildfires.
Such fires are not uncommon at this time of year, at the end of the long, dry summer, and with seasonal winds capable of quickly whipping up a casually thrown cigarette or a bonfire into a full-scale blaze. But as the number of fires multiplied on Wednesday and Thursday, allegations spread that many of the blazes were being deliberately set. Those claims were confirmed by Israel’s police chief Roni Alsheich, who said on Thursday afternoon that some, though by no means all, of the fires were the result of arson, presumably with a “nationalistic” motivation, he said.
Tellingly, while there were dozens of blazes across Israel on Thursday, in what some experts said was an unprecedented eruption of fire, there were few reports of fires in Jordan, the West Bank or Gaza, where weather conditions are similar.
By Thursday evening, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan was declaring that the situation nationwide was “under control,” but not long after, there were reports of a blaze flaring afresh in the Shaar Hagai area outside Jerusalem, and more fires in the north of the country — underlining that the danger was far from over.
Reports said up to eight people were arrested as suspected arsonists throughout Israel.
Erdan, who had previously been quoted on Channel 2 as saying some 50 percent of the fires were arson, was more circumspect in front of the cameras, stressing that the professionals in the field had drawn “preliminary conclusions” of arson in “some cases.” Immediately after the interview, Channel 2 said, Erdan added that there was camera footage of some arsonists in action.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the arsonists as “terrorists,” and said they would be punished severely. Interior Minister Aryeh Deri said their “status” would be affected — an apparent hint at a possible, legally complex, future effort to strip offenders of their Israeli citizenship. Deri was backed up by Netanyahu himself, who tweeted later in the evening that Israel would seek to revoke the resident status of arsonists.
The allegations of arson have focused heavily on the area most affected by fire — the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Haifa. Several suspects were reported to be in custody in connection to the Haifa blazes on Thursday night. By Friday morning, officials were saying 12 suspects were in custody — half of them Palestinians, in Israel illegally.
Throughout Thursday, tens of thousands of Haifa residents were evacuated from a dozen neighborhoods. Many of them were spending the night in centers equipped for such an emergency. Volunteers were drafted in. Police were patrolling the evacuated neighborhoods to prevent looting.
Incitement for more arson attacks was widespread in Arabic social media — but most of the vicious rhetoric was said to be coming from further afield, notably including Saudi Arabia, and relatively little from the Palestinian areas. The PA, meanwhile, was sending four fire trucks in an act both practical and symbolic.
Ayman Odeh, Israel’s most prominent Arab Knesset member, who hails from the Haifa area, called any acts of arson “pernicious crimes” and said those responsible “are the enemies of us all.”
Israel’s Islamic Movement offered help to all Israelis affected. The mayor of Tayibe, an Arab town in central Israel, also offered to host any Israelis who needed a place for the night.
Israel also received rapid assistance from allies nearby, including firefighting planes from Russia, Croatia, Cyprus, Greece and Turkey. At a reported cost of $1.5 million, the US “SuperTanker” firefighter was also making its way to Israel and was expected late on Friday.
Time will tell whether Erdan was sensible to assert that the situation was broadly under control; weather forecasters say the flame-fanning winds are likely to continue through the weekend.
In Zichron Yaakov, where major blazes raged on Tuesday, fire chiefs said a detailed prevention plan — with requirements for more space between woodlands and homes — had never been implemented, despite repeated warnings. But it did appear that some lessons had been learned from previous outbreaks of fire.
The worst such blaze in Israeli history, the Mount Carmel Forest Fire in 2010, took 44 lives. As of Thursday night, amid heartbreaking damage to homes and forests, no Israelis had been killed in the wave of fires; more than 100 people were treated in Haifa on Thursday, but almost all for light injuries stemming from smoke inhalation.
Firefighters, many of whom had been working three days straight, had evacuated prisons, old age homes, universities, schools and entire neighborhoods — “to be on the safe side,” as a Haifa fire chief said.