Security minister: No indication of arson

Netanyahu asks for international help as huge fires force evacuation of 3,500

Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Croatia answer call; Public security warns Friday could be much worse amid searing heatwave; officials ready to vacate thousands more

Firefighters battle a blaze near Kibbutz Harel in central Israel, May 23, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Firefighters battle a blaze near Kibbutz Harel in central Israel, May 23, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu directed the Foreign Ministry to reach out to nearby countries for “immediate” assistance in putting out the hundreds of fires that were ravaging the country Thursday evening, destroying dozens of houses and forcing the evacuation of some 3,500 from their homes.

Later, the Foreign Ministry said Italy, Greece, Cyprus and Croatia had agreed to send help, but the aircraft would only be able to depart for Israel on Friday morning.

Hours earlier, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan held a situational assessment and instructed fire authorities to prepare for the possibility that a national emergency be declared, with Friday’s temperatures expected to eclipse 100° F throughout the country.

Erdan later told Channel 12 news that with the exception of several fires near Gaza caused by arson balloons, there were no indications so far of arson.

Erdan warned that officials were expecting Friday to be even worse as the heatwave reached its peak. Temperatures hit 37° C (99° F) in Tel Aviv, 43° C (110° F) in Beersheba in the Negev and 50° C (122° F) in the Arava region.

The largest fire was in the Ben Shemen Forest and around the 250-member community of Mevo Modiim in central Israel.

A police official told Channel 13 news that the blaze had largely destroyed the town established by singer and rabbi Shlomo Carlebach in 1975.

Meanwhile, residents of nearby Gimzo evacuated Torah scrolls from the community synagogue as the flames approached.

In addition to Mevo Modiin and Gizmo, a fire service spokesman said that Israelis had been evacuated from the central towns of Tarum, Neot Kedumim, Kfar Daniel, Kfar Uriya, Karmia and Harel. He added that forces were preparing to evacuate thousands of more Israelis, including ones in the central towns of Shilat, Kfar Ruth and Lapid.

In the West Bank, police evacuated some 30 families from their homes in the Beit Hagai settlement as a fire approached the community.

Effects of a fire in the central town of Mevo Modiim on May 23, 2019. (Israel Fire Service)

The head of Fire and Rescue Services called up all firefighters in the central region in light of the large number of blazes in the area.

Firefighters had yet to gain control of the majority of the fires as sunset approached, the spokesman said. Police reported that the blazes had caused road closures throughout the center of the country, with Route 443 — a key highway linking Tel Aviv and Jerusalem — closed at the Gizmo Junction. Route 44 was closed from the Shimshon to Nachshon junctions and Route 3411 was closed from the Zikim to Karmia junctions. In addition, the entrance to Route 443 from Route 1 was also blocked in both directions.

Some 22 people were hospitalized for smoke inhalation, including two in moderate condition, according to Magen David Adom spokesman Zaki Heller.

In Jerusalem, an 80-year-old man was hospitalized at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center after collapsing from an apparent heatstroke. The man was said to be in serious condition.

A firefighting plane was also working alongside rescue teams to douse a major blaze near the central Israeli town of Elad, which Hebrew media reports said was believed to have begun from an improperly extinguished bonfire for the Lag B’Omer holiday.

Ahead of Lag B’Omer, which began Wednesday evening, permits to light bonfires were restricted in light of the weather conditions.

Several fires in the south, near Gaza, were believed to have been sparked by incendiary devices launched from the Gaza Strip. One blaze in Karmia led to the evacuation of the tiny kibbutz, which lies just north of the Strip. Road 3411 near Karmia was closed to traffic.

Firefighters were battling another blaze in Be’eri Forest.

Numerous fires broke out in the south the previous day, on Wednesday, as a result of flaming airborne devices launched from Gaza, leading Israel to restrict the permitted fishing area off the coastal enclave.

Firefighters try to extinguish a fire near Beitar Illit, in the West Bank, May 23, 2019. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

Due to Thursday’s weather, Israel Railways announced it was limiting service in some areas as the heat was causing train tracks to expand.


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