At least 20 planes in operation over Ma’ale Hahamisha, as flames head toward Nataf; homes being evacuated
A major forest fire broke out in the Jerusalem hills on Friday afternoon, hours after a massive overnight blaze nearby devastated at least 10 homes and threatened to destroy a small village west of the capital.
Multiple teams of firefighters were battling the blaze at Ma’ale Hahamisha on Friday afternoon, and more were being deployed. At least 20 planes were said to be operating in the area, dousing the flames from the skies.
Authorities said the fire was expanding and progressing toward the nearby community of Nataf, which has already been hit by a blaze that started Tuesday. None of the homes in Ma’ale Hahamisha or Nataf were in danger, police said initially, but in late afternoon they ordered the evacuation of Nataf.
Channel 2 reported that initial suspicions were that the blaze was started by a petrol bomb thrown from a nearby Arab village. This report was not confirmed.
The blaze was part of a wave of forest and brush fires that have cut a swath of destruction across several of Israel’s forests since Tuesday, and in several places entered residential areas. No one has been killed in the blazes, but hundreds have been injured, dozens of homes burned and, in Haifa, tens of thousands were evacuated.
Dozens of firefighters spent the night trying to save Beit Meir, near Abu Ghosh, but were unable stop the flames reaching a “great many” homes, police said. There were no reports of injuries as the village’s residents had already been evacuated.
Jerusalem police chief Yoram Halevy said one suspected arsonist was in custody Friday morning. “We believe there are arsonists out there, but also weather conditions that allow this to spark [without human aid],” Halevy told Army Radio.
“We spotted two suspects [near Beit Meir], at least one was arrested. He’s being taken for questioning, but it’s still too early to say he started the fire.”
The man was among more than a dozen suspects arrested on suspicion of sparking at least some of the hundreds of fires that have threatened Israeli towns and forests. He was identified by the Ynet news site as a Palestinian.
Among the suspects are several whom the Shin Bet domestic security service and police believe are responsible for starting some of the devastating fires that ripped through Haifa on Thursday, causing the evacuation of more than 60,000 people and damage to hundreds of homes.
Citing the hundreds of separate fires reported since Tuesday, political leaders from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan to Education Minister Naftali Bennett have charged that Arab arsonistsare behind part of the scourge. All three Israeli leaders called the alleged arson “terrorism” on Thursday.
In one instance a car was found near a fire outside Oranit in the West Bank that had fake license plates. Rags soaked in gasoline were found in the car.
Meanwhile, many Arabic-speaking social media users in Israel and abroad have cheered on the fires, causing the Arabic-language hashtag label “Israel is burning” to reach the third-most trending tag on Twitter in several nearby Arab countries.
But some Israeli security officials have warned against jumping to conclusions about the cause of the wave of fires, saying the evidence for a widespread campaign of arson remains ambiguous.
Investigators have said a large portion of the blazes, as many as half by some accounts, have clearly been caused by accidents and/or the exceptionally dry and windy weather of the last few days, while some indicate arson, and still others are under investigation.
Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich established a special investigative unit on Thursday to determine the cause of the fires and help locate arsonists. Earlier Thursday, he acknowledged arson “in some cases… presumably out of nationalistic motives.”
Israel was expected to receive further help in fighting the fires on Friday after several nations answered Israel’s call. Three firefighting planes from Greece and one from Cyprus are already in action, while overnight one plane from Turkey, two from Croatia, two from Italy and two from Russia arrived and will join the fight Friday, the Prime Minister’s Office said.
Also, the massive US-based supertanker, a converted Boeing 747 that can operate at night, was expected by midnight Friday, the Foreign Ministry said.
In Beit Meir, at least 10 buildings had been burned by 6 a.m. Friday, and small fires remained in public spaces in the village.
Also early Friday, the village of Kaabiya in the Galilee saw flames from a nearby forest reach the edges of the community. Police evacuated five families, but said the move was a precaution, as firefighters expected to contain the blaze.
There were many blazes in other parts of the country Thursday and throughout the night. In the evening, a fire broke out near Shuafat in East Jerusalem and two houses were evacuated. One firefighter was lightly injured near Shaar Hagai, close to the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv Route 1 highway.
Another fire was reported early Friday between the Galilee Arab towns of Kabul and Tamra. There were no immediate reports of injuries or damage.