Middle East

Israel fires: Dozen suspects arrested on suspicion of arson

A firefighting plane drops fire retardant during wildfire over the northern city of Haifa Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Specialist air crews have been fighting the wildfires

Israeli police have arrested 12 people on suspicion of arson over a series of wildfires that have burned around the country for four days.

Firefighters have brought a blaze under control around the northern city of Haifa, where about 80,000 people were ordered to evacuate.

But officials say several smaller fires are still being tackled in different locations.

The blazes have been fanned by hot, dry weather and high winds.

Several people have been treated for smoke inhalation but no serious injuries have been reported.

Israel's Fire and Rescue Services operations chief Shmulik Fridman told Israel radio on Friday that more than half the fires had been caused by arson.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that if any of the fires were started deliberately they would be treated as an act of terrorism.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party, hinted at seditious Israeli Arab or Palestinian involvement, Tweeting: "Only those to whom the country does not belong are capable of burning it."

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah movement said Israeli officials were "exploiting the fire" to accuse Palestinians.


War of words: By Yolande Knell, BBC News, Beit Meir

The outbreak of dozens of fires over the past four days is heating up tensions between Jewish Israelis and members of the country's Arab minority, as well as Palestinians.

With security officials saying many of the fires could have been caused by arson, several Israeli politicians have implicated Arabs.

They note how Arabic social media posts - from around the region - have been celebrating scenes of Israeli cities ablaze.

Some Israeli media added their own fuel, speculating about a possible "fire intifada", or uprising, after a spate of knife, shooting and car ramming attacks over the past year.

However, giving his reaction, Ayman Odeh, an Israeli Arab MP from Haifa, which has a mixed Arab-Jewish population, said arsonists were "the enemies of us all".

The Labour leader, Isaac Herzog, also urged restraint, warning of the dangers of rhetoric that could "add to the flames".


Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Officials say they have brought a wildfire around northern Haifa under control

Despite the fire around Haifa calming, fire officials warned it would be several days before they could fully extinguish what remains of the blaze.

Overnight hundreds of people were evacuated from the town of Beit Meir near Jerusalem after several homes caught fire.

Police blamed the fire there on arson and three suspects have been arrested, according to the Jerusalem Post.

A communal settlement in the north, Harashim, has also been evacuated as a blaze approaches, Haaretz reported.

Media captionRoads and schools closed as firefighters tackle blazes in Haifa, Neve Shalom and elsewhere

Palestinian firefighting crews were despatched from the West Bank to help efforts in Haifa.

The team's head, Abdulatif Abu Amshah, said: "Firefighters, their aim is to stop fire. No need to look [at] religion or anything else."

A US supertanker, capable of carrying 74 tonnes of water and fire retardant, is due to arrive in Israel on Friday to assist.

Several other countries - including Cyprus, Russia, Italy, Croatia and Greece - have also sent help and equipment, including aircraft, to help tackle the blazes.

The fires are the worst since 2010, when 44 people died in a fire on Mount Carmel, just south of Haifa.


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