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World & Nation

Wildfire blamed on ‘terror’ roars through Israeli city, forcing tens of thousands to evacuate

Israel wildfire
Israeli firefighters battle a Nov. 24 blaze that has forced thousands of people to evacuate Haifi, the country’s third-largest city.
(Ariel Schalit / Associated Press)

Wildfires swept through neighborhoods in the northern Israeli city of Haifa on Thursday, prompting the evacuation of tens of thousands of residents. The blaze was the latest in a series of fires that have sprung up around the country over the last three days amid dry and windy weather. 

The repeated outbreak of fires in multiple areas prompted Israeli politicians to allege that they were possibly the result of politically motivated arson attacks. 

“Any fire caused by arson or incitement to arson is terrorism,’’ said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday. “We will settle the score with every act of recklessness.’’

Israel’s police chief, Roni Alsheich, told reporters that arrests had been made, without elaborating.

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“It’s safe to assume that whoever is setting the fires isn’t doing it only out of pyromania,” he said. “It’s safe to assume that if it is arson it is politically motivated." 

Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Arab Joint List alliance in Israel’s parliament and a resident of Haifa, condemned the allegations as incitement against the country’s Arab minority. “This is something that hurts us all directly,’’ he said in an interview with the news website Ynet. “And you have to attack a minority? What’s wrong?”

Smoke billows from a house in the northern Israeli port city of Haifa.
Smoke billows from a house in the northern Israeli port city of Haifa.
(Ahmad Gharabli / AFP/Getty Images )

A statement released by Fatah, the political party of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, accused Israel’s government of “exploiting the fire to accuse Palestinian parties of being behind the fire” and said that “what is burning is our trees and our land of historical Palestine.”

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Though no one has been seriously injured in the fires, dozens of Israelis have been treated for smoke inhalation and several houses have been severely damaged. Firefighter aircraft from Greece and Cyprus were helping in the effort to contain the blazes, and Israeli officials said that other countries, including Russia, Italy and Turkey, were also sending planes.   

Israeli television showed frightening scenes of blazes closing in on mid-rise apartment buildings in Haifa, as planes swooped over neighborhoods, leaving trails of fire retardant in their wake. In recent days, a series of local blazes had also broken out in wooded areas in the Jerusalem hills and in the Galilee. 

On Wednesday evening, Education Minister Naftali Bennett tweeted that “only someone who does not belong to this country could be capable of burning it.”

Some comments on Arabic-language social media celebrating the fires prompted condemnation from Israeli and foreign officials.

“Despicable fanatic hatred,’’ wrote Ofir Gendelman, a spokesman for the prime minister, on Twitter.

Nickolay Mladenov, the United Nations coordinator for the Middle East peace process, called on all sides to work together. “Despicable how some chose to celebrate this tragedy. Fire does not discriminate,” he wrote on Twitter.  

The blazes were the worst the country has seen since 2010, when a wildfire in the Carmel mountains south of Haifa killed 42 people. Israeli officials said the dry weather fueling the fires was expected to continue into early next week, stoking concern about new blazes. 

Haifa’s mayor said that fires Thursday were difficult to handle because they spread throughout different city neighborhoods.

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“This is an incident that we are not accustomed to,’’ said Mayor Yona Yahav. “Every place you look, fires are breaking out.”

Mitnick is a special correspondent. Rushdi abu Alouf in Gaza City and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

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UPDATES:

2:40 p.m.: This article was updated with staff reporting.

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10:25 a.m.: This article was updated with Israeli implication that Arab assailants were involved in the fires.

This article was originally published at 9:10 a.m.


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