Government ministers Avigdor Liberman and Naftali Bennett said Sunday that Israel should respond to the rash of fires that has hit Israel over the past week by increasing building in West Bank settlements.
On separate visits to the West Bank community of Halamish (Neve Tzuf), where residents were forced to evacuate late Friday and Saturday due to an encroaching fire, the two right-wing leaders both blamed arson as a primary cause for the blazes and said that building more homes would send a clear message to the perpetrators.
Security officials had said arsonists were behind at least some of the fire outbreaks but had given no indication of how central arson was to the fires. In all, at least 35 people have been arrested since Thursday in connection with the fires but police have not indicated how many were suspected of setting fires and how many of inciting others to do so.
In the first concrete reference to the number of suspicions of arson, Defense Minister Liberman said there was “proof” that 17 of 110 recorded outbreaks were caused by arsonists, and authorities “were still investigating the other incidents.”
Liberman said Israel should respond by “expanding settlements.”
“We’re not talking in terms of retaliation. We’re talking about rebuilding, and putting lives back together,” he said. “We need to not just rebuild as many houses as we can but to expand the settlements. The best answer to this situation is expanding the settlements.”
Education Minister Bennett echoed Liberman’s comments, saying building was the “solution to nationalistic terror.”
“For every house destroyed, we will build more homes,” he said. “We will win.”
In Halamish, outside Ramallah, a blaze that raged for several hours before being brought under control early Saturday afternoon left 15 homes totally gutted and more than two dozen others with varying degrees of damage, and forced the hundreds of residents to evacuate.
Also visiting the settlement, Science Minister Ofer Akunis called the fire a “terror act.”
“We will catch the terrorists sooner or later and mete out justice to them,” he said, adding that there was no difference between fires in West Bank settlements and other Israel cities.
On Wednesday night, as the first fires broke out, Bennett wrote on Twitter that the blazes could only have been set off by “someone who this land this does not belong to.”
On Thursday, numerous fires broke out near the northern city of Haifa, prompting mass evacuations as forests, homes and business burned. By mid-afternoon, 100 people had been treated for fire-related injuries, mostly caused by smoke inhalation.
In all, as much as 130,000 dunams (32,000 acres) of natural forests and brush were destroyed, about 30 percent more than the territory affected by the Carmel Forest fire of 2010. A great deal of the Judean Hills National Park and the Kfir Nature Reserve was burned.
Haifa city officials said Saturday that the fires ravaged some 28,000 dunams (6,900 acres) of land in the city since Thursday. Between 400 and 530 homes were damaged by the fires there.
Last week Liberman drew a sharp rebuke from Bennett’s national religious Jewish Home party after he suggested Israel seek a new approach to the West Bank settlement enterprise based on cooperating with the US to expand Jewish communities in the larger settlement blocs in parallel to a freeze on construction in smaller, outlying communities.
Liberman also railed against the Jewish Home-backed Regulation Bill allowing for the retroactive legalization of illegal settlement outposts built on private Palestinian land.
The legislation does not help the settlement movement, he said. Rather, “it harms the settlements,” Liberman said. “It’s simply unnecessary.”
Liberman also said that the bill was compromising the government’s ability to find another solution to the impending demolition of the Amona outpost.
“I am very much in favor of the residents of Amona, and that’s why I won’t lie to them,” he said, emphasizing that the regulation bill would not stop the razing of the outpost on December 25, as ordered by the High Court.
After Liberman made his comments Bennett reportedly met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and asked him to rein in the defense minister, arguing that the Trump administration would not be more pro-settlement than the example set by the Israeli government itself.