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Rivlin: My heart is with the citizens who've been evacuated

Netanyahu mulls international aid plea as fires force thousands from their homes

More than 5,000 evacuated from homes in Nof Hagalil near Nazareth, thousands more forced to flee as 250 wildfires sparked by heatwave hit communities across Israel, West Bank

Firemen fight flames near the Kfar HaOranim settlemet in the West Bank, October 9, 2020 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
Firemen fight flames near the Kfar HaOranim settlemet in the West Bank, October 9, 2020 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday held urgent consultations as thousands of people were evacuated from their homes as wildfires raged across the country, saying that he would call for international assistance if the situation deteriorated.

Firefighters were battling multiple blazes Friday near communities and major highways across the country and in the West Bank, amid an intense heatwave. The fires caused more than 5,000 people to be evacuated from the northern town of Nof Hagalil.

“I received updates from the fire department chief and I asked him to ensure that we are using all our resources, and if need be, consider international assistance,” Netanyahu tweeted after meeting with internal security, police and National Security Council officials.

A statement from his office said that he was assured that currently, the situation was under control and that firefighters were being assisted by the police and the Israel Defense Force’s Home Front Command.

Israel formed a regional fire-fighting alliance with Cyprus and Greece after Israel was devastated in 2016 by a series of brushfires that burned tens of thousands of acres, wounded some 200 people, and damaged or destroyed hundreds of homes.

The country was forced to ask allies to send firefighting planes and other equipment and personnel to help fight the blazes, that were also largely caused by a late fall heatwave with dry weather and strong winds.

Firefighter chief Dedi Simchi told Channel 12 that his forces battled 250 fires on Friday, including seven major blazes.

Simchi said investigators were now starting to probe the cause of the fires,

“We believe that most will be found to have been caused by human factors, we don’t yet know if it was negligence or deliberate,” he said, noting that Israel does not suffer from frequent lightning strikes.

The Ynet news site quoted unnamed security officials as saying that there was concern some of the fires in the West Bank may have been deliberately started by Palestinians. Palestinian arson was widely blamed for many of the fires in 2016, but ultimately no one was prosecuted for nationalistically-motivated arson.

Palestinian sources said several blazes were caused by IDF smoke and tear gas canisters fired during clashes with Palestinian protesters.

Palestinians fight a fire that was reportedly caused by tear gas canisters fired by Israeli soldiers while trying to block protesters from reaching an Israeli settler outpost, in the West Bank village of Beit Dajan, east of Nablus, Friday, Oct. 9, 2020. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

President Reuven Rivlin also expressed his concern and support for those affected.

“I am following with concern the updates on the fires spreading across several parts of the country, my heart is with the citizens who have been evacuated,” he said, adding his thanks to all those taking part in the firefighting efforts.

In the most serious incident in Nof Hagalil, near Nazareth, at least 5,000 people were ordered to leave their homes, with many taken to hotels in parts of the city that were unaffected.

At least 30 firefighter teams were operating to gain control of the fires. Two people were lightly hurt after inhaling smoke and were treated by paramedics. Seven homes were destroyed and dozens more damaged by the fire.

“The situation around Nof Hagalil is grave,” said MK Aida Touma-Sliman of the Joint List party, posting a video to Twitter of the blaze. “The fire raging there threatens thousands of families in the city and [in] nearby villages.”

By Friday evening some of the residents were allowed to return to their homes.

Firefighters were also battling large fires near six other communities, with thousands more people being evacuated. Sections of the major north-south Route 6 highway and the 434 highway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem were closed in parts.

In the West Bank settlement of Kfar HaOranim near the city of Modiin, several houses were destroyed before firefighters managed to gain control of the blaze.

View of the damage caused to a house during a wildfire in Kfar HaOranim, near the city of Modiin, on October 9, 2020 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The Binyamin Regional Council in the West Bank said 80 families had been forced to evacuate their homes in Kfar HaOranim.

The fire managed to burn down one home entirely and three others incurred significant damages. In addition, millions of shekels in damages were caused to the settlement’s security fence as well as other infrastructure in the town, the regional council said.

Police said 25 fire-fighting teams and aircraft were deployed at Kfar HaOranim with windy conditions hampering their efforts.

The scene where a fire broke out in the town of Fureidis, northern Israel, on October 9, 2020. (Meir Vaknin/Flash90)

The IDF said that dozens of its soldiers had been dispatched to the Mevo Dotan settlement along with the central town of Bat Hefer to assist in the evacuation of families whose homes were in the line of fire.

A fire rages near the Kfar HaOranim settlement in the West Bank, October 9, 2020 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Another large fire was reported near Umm al-Qutuf, east of Hadera. Some 13 firefighting teams were at the scene and working to douse the flames. Residents were evacuated from the Arab village, as well as from nearby Kafr Qara and Ar’ara.

Blazes had also broken out near the towns of Hadera, Emek Hefer, Nazareth, Umm al-Qutuf, Fureidis, Margaliot and Lapidot.

A fire near the village of Umm al-Qutuf in central Israel, October 9, 2020 (Fire and Rescue Services)

Elsewhere in the West Bank, the Palestinian Civil Defense was fighting 60 fires across areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority, the agency said.

In a press release, the Civil Defense added that its crews dealt with a large fire that broke out in a plastic factory in Salfit Governorate, and another that broke out in a warehouse in Tubas Governorate.

A rare October heatwave ramped up over Israel on Thursday, bringing blazing temperatures to many parts of the country as an alarmingly hot summer and fall continued to grip the region.

Jerusalem and Haifa experienced a searing 34° C (94° F) on Thursday afternoon, while Tel Aviv saw a high of 33° (91° F).

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