JERUSALEM // Israeli police said on Friday they had arrested 12 people on suspicion of arson after massive wildfires tore through central and northern Israel, forcing the evacuation of about 80,000 people in the city of Haifa and destroying hundreds of homes.
Firefighters kept battling the flames in wooded hills around Jerusalem and in northern areas on Friday, with support from Palestinian firemen and emergency teams from Greece, Cyprus, Croatia, Italy, Russia and Turkey. In a rare move, Israel also called up military reservists to join overstretched police and firefighters
Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had also accepted offers of help from Egypt and Jordan.
Mr Netanyahu said arson appeared to be responsible for some fires and accused the alleged culprits of terrorism, pointing to celebrations in some Arab circles over the fires. “The instruction is to bring to justice everyone that committed such an offence to create a deterrent for others and for the simple rule that those who try burn the state of Israel will be punished to the fullest extent,” he said during a visit to an airbase where he met pilots putting out the fires. “There are elements of terror here, of that there is no doubt.”
Unseasonably dry weather and easterly winds helped to kindle the conflagration, which started on Tuesday and now stretches across half the country.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said a dozen people had been detained across the country either while attempting to set fires or while fleeing the area, but he provided no further details.
Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan said they were “minorities” — a reference to either Arab Israeli citizens or Palestinians. “The highest likelihood is that the motive is nationalistic,” he told Army Radio.
The fires are the biggest in the country since 2010, when 44 people were killed in a killed in a massive blaze in the north, which investigators concluded had been caused by negligence.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of a far-right party, said on Thursday the fires could not have been started by Jews and on Friday blamed them on “nationalist terrorists”, a reference in Israel to Palestinians.
“There is no coincidental ‘wave of fires’,” he wrote on Twitter. “There is a nationalist terrorist wave by fire terrorists meant to murder civilians and cause fright.”
There has been no official response from Palestinian leaders. But Ayman Odeh, a leading Israeli Arab politician from Haifa, rejected the suggestion Arabs were responsible for arson attacks and accused the Israeli government of taking advantage of the situation to incite anger against the Arab minority.
Nearly a third of the residents of Haifa, a coastal city of around 250,000 people, including a large Arab population, spent the night in shelters and nearby towns and villages after being ordered to leave on Thursday in the face of walls of flame.
Smoke billowed over the city on Friday morning as firefighters worked to douse the remaining fires. City officials said the situation was under control but that at least 700 homes had been badly damaged or destroyed. Though no one was seriously injured, several dozen people were hospitalised for smoke inhalation.
Israel’s chief of police said on Thursday people may have decided to start fires after seeing the trouble they were causing. “We’re in an area where if someone sees on the news there is an opportunity, he can take advantage of the opportunity,” said Roni Alsheich.
An Israeli army spokeswoman said forces had arrested a Palestinian man caught trying to set a fire near the Israeli settlement of Kochav Yaakov in the occupied West Bank. Footage aired on Israeli television showed three people setting a fire in an open area near the West Bank settlement of Ariel.
Police said one man from the Bedouin village of Rahat in southern Israel had been arrested for incitement after he posted a message on his Facebook page calling on others to start fires.
Palestinians seek an independent state in territories including the West Bank that Israel took in a 1967 war. The last round of peace talks collapsed in 2014.