One-third of about 90 fires caused by arson, police estimate

Some 50 people questioned, 24 arrested; no signs of national coordination in spate of blazes

Men hose down wildfires in Haifa, Israel, November 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
Men hose down wildfires in Haifa, Israel, November 24, 2016. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Police on Sunday said that one-third of the fires raging across the country are suspected to have been set deliberately.

In a statement, the police said that they suspect between 30-40 of the 90 fires they have investigated thus far were started by arsonists.

Police also said that although much of the evidence was destroyed by the fires, they are using forensic samples to determine whether the fires were ignited intentionally.

However, police have not yet found any evidence that the arson was coordinated nationally or planned in advance. Their assessment is that the arson was local and opportunistic, the statement said.

“Many of the incidents were caused by normal reasons, like weather or an electrical short circuit. But a serious number were caused by arson,” a spokesperson said. Many fires starting over a small area is an indicator of possible arson, he added.

The 747 Supertanker during the 2010 Carmel forest fires in Israel. (CC BY-SA 3.0 ShacharLA/Wikipedia)
The 747 Supertanker during the 2010 Carmel forest fires in Israel. (CC BY-SA 3.0 ShacharLA/Wikipedia)

“We are setting up a nationwide team to centralize the local details and are trying to find a connection,” the spokesperson said. “We are trying to understand who is behind the arson, and we are trying to reach them.”

Police said that they have questioned some 50 people in connection with the fires and arrested 24. Eighteen of those arrested are Israeli Arabs, Channel 2 reported. Two of those, from the Israeli Arab towns of Umm al-Fahm and Deir Hanna in northern Israel, admitted to arson. Five people were arrested on suspicion of inciting on social media and 45 were questioned on suspicion of starting fires.

Since Tuesday, firefighters have been battling wildfires throughout the country that on Thursday hit the city of Haifa, forcing some 60,000 residents to evacuate their homes. The residents have since been cleared to return home, though over 1,000 houses have been damaged.

Attending to the rash of an estimated 110 fires across the country, firefighting planes from Israel and countries including Russia, Turkey, Greece, France, Spain and Canada have dumped tons of water and retardants.

Police chief Roni Alsheich said Sunday that there had been similar arson attacks in the past and that they should be considered acts of terror, Army Radio reported.

“If setting the fire was deliberate, it is definitely terror,” Alsheich said during a visit to the West Bank settlement of Halamish, where a fire destroyed 18 homes on Friday night. “By the way, that is nothing new, there have been arson incidents in the past. The concentration of a relatively large number of days, and the number of incidents and the weather conditions, brought about these results but there is nothing new and there were incidents like this in the past.”

Alsheich said the security services are equipped to deal with terror and hinted that Israel was prepared to employ more stringent measures if necessary.

“We have good tools for dealing with terror — we haven’t yet taken advantage of them; we will review things and if we think that the measures are lacking we will demand them… There are sufficient measures in the Israeli book of laws.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday there was “no doubt” some of the fires were started deliberately. “There is a price to pay for the crimes committed, there is a price to pay for arson terrorism,” he said.

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