More than fifty thousand people were evacuated as wildfires raged through parts of Israel’s third largest city, Haifa.
The fires had been burning in several locations for the past three days but intensified on Thursday, fueled by unseasonably dry weather and strong winds.
The wildfires tore across central and northern Israel on Thursday, with Israeli leaders blaming arsonists for some of the blazes and branding them terrorists.
The BBC reports:
Wildfires are also threatening homes near Jerusalem and in the West Bank.
Israel’s police chief said arson was suspected in some cases and PM Benjamin Netanyahu said any such attacks would amount to “terror”.
“Every fire that was the result of arson or incitement to arson is terror in every way and we’ll treat it as such,” he was quoted by Haaretz newspaper as saying.
“Anyone who tries to burn parts of the state of Israel will be severely punished.”
Police chief Roni Alsheich said that if fires had been started deliberately it was “safe to assume… it is politically-motivated”.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing religious Jewish Home party, also appeared to suggest Arab or Palestinian involvement in the fires, writing on Twitter: “Only those to whom the country does not belong are capable of burning it.”
On social media, the Arabic-language hashtag #Israel_on_fire began trending, with most tweets expressing pleasure over the outbreak.
Four Palestinians have been arrested in connection with a fire near Jerusalem and are due to appear in court, officials said.
The Palestinian Authority has offered to help Israel’s fire department, a senior Israeli security official told the BBC, but has not yet received a reply.
Meanwhile, hundreds of military reservists have been called up to help battle the three-day outbreak of fires.
In Haifa, about 50,000 of the city’s residents had left their homes, the city council said, and several neighbourhoods will be without electricity overnight.
People loaded up supermarket trolleys with belongings, while schools, kindergartens, universities and an old people’s hospital were evacuated.
More than 130 people have been taken to hospital with minor injuries, mainly from smoke inhalation, but most were later discharged, Haaretz reported.
Two prisons near Haifa have also been evacuated.
Further south, Highway 443 – which links Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, crossing through the West Bank – was closed to morning traffic on Thursday as another blaze reached the city of Modi’in.
Homes and cars were damaged, and 300 students were evacuated from a school in Talmon, an Israel settlement in the occupied West Bank, police said.
Firefighters have been battling fires in several locations since Tuesday and forecasters are warning that the dry conditions and strong winds are likely to continue until early next week.
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