Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday branded suspected arsonists as “terrorists” and promised that harsh steps would be taken against them as the country struggled to deal with hundreds of brush fires, some of them apparently deliberately set.
“Every fire caused by arson, or by incitement to arson, is terrorism,” Netanyahu told reporters at a briefing in Haifa. “Anyone who tries to burn parts of the State of Israel will be punished severely.”
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said a small number of arrests had been made, but declined to provide any information on the identity of the suspects or any evidence found.
“I can promise you that these investigations will do everything to reach the arsonists, but also those who are inciting these acts,” said Erdan. “They will feel the full force of the law.”
However, at a later briefing Erdan appeared to take a softer tone, noting that the evidence of arson came from initial findings from the firefighters and not from police investigators, as the main priority remained putting out the fires and saving lives.
“The evidence of arson is from initial findings only,” he said.
Reports said up to eight people were arrested as suspected arsonists throughout Israel.
Worst hit was the northern city of Haifa, where some 60,000 people were forced to evacuate their homes as fires were stoked by high winds and dry conditions.
Israel Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich confirmed earlier in the day that some of the fires cropping up throughout the country were caused by arson, although he said it was unlikely they were the result of a coordinated effort.
Channel 2 quoted security sources late Thursday saying about half of the fires appeared to have been started deliberately.
Calls for action came from across the political spectrum.
“Whoever is found to be deliberately setting fires to harm innocent citizens is a terrorist,” said MK Yair Lapid, leader of the opposition Yesh Atid party. “The security forces need to deal with anyone caught with a heavy hand.”
Yisrael Hasson, a former Knesset member and deputy director of the Shin Bet, called the deliberate setting of fires “a weapon of mass destruction.”
Hasson told Channel 2 that if Israeli Arabs or Palestinians were behind the fires, it represented an escalation in their opposition to Israel. “It does not just cross the lines, it burns the lines,” he said.
Political commentators also fanned the flames.
“Anyone who is caught (alive) should be charged with treason and their family’s possessions should be confiscated. This is war,” tweeted Erel Segal, a prominent right-wing radio personality.
Opposition leader Isaac Herzog, head of the Zionist Union faction, also termed it “a new kind of terrorism” but called for restraint until the fires have been doused.
“It is important to emphasize that now is not the time for recrimination, but rather a moment to work together and take mutual responsibility, helping each other wherever and however required,” a statement said.
Arab lawmakers urged Jewish politicians to not “incite” against the Arab community so long as there is no proof that these were deliberate nationalist acts.
“I call on the Israeli pyromaniac politicians: Let the firefighters do their noble work,” Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi told Channel 2.
“We love this country, this land,” he said, mentioning other instances when Arabs were initially blamed for setting fires that later turned out to have been accidental conflagrations.
He categorically condemned any instances of arson, calling such acts “despicable.”
Meanwhile, Israel was giving thanks for the international assistance it had received from countries that sent firefighting planes to help.
“Thank you #Cyprus,#Croatia,#Greece, #Italy,#Russia,#Turkey,#Romania & #Bulgaria for sending help to fight the fires in Israel. True friends!” the Foreign Ministry tweeted.