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As Wildfires Rage, Israel Suggests Arson and Asks for Foreign Help

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A plane dropped fire retardant over a blaze in woods near Nataf, a village in the hills outside Jerusalem, on Wednesday. Credit Abir Sultan/European Pressphoto Agency

JERUSALEM — Wildfires raged through central and northern Israel for a third day on Thursday, devouring forests, damaging homes and prompting the evacuation of thousands of people.

Israeli officials said the fires had been fanned by unusually strong winds and made worse by a dry atmosphere, but they also said they suspected that many of them had been caused by arson and negligence. Dozens of people have been lightly affected by smoke inhalation, but no serious injuries or fatalities have been reported.

Gilad Erdan, Israel’s public security minister, told Army Radio that the professional assessment was that almost half the fires were the result of arson.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who attributed the fires to “natural and unnatural” causes, spoke on Thursday with President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, who promised to send two huge firefighting aircraft.

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Firefighters tackled flames in Nataf, Israel, on Wednesday. Credit Abir Sultan/European Pressphoto Agency

Firefighting planes and teams from Cyprus and Greece have already arrived, and the Israeli police and Foreign Ministry have said that more help is on the way from Croatia, Italy and Turkey.

The Israeli emergency services are more prepared and better equipped than they were in 2010, when a fierce fire raged through the Carmel Forest area near the northern port city of Haifa. More than 40 people, most of them officer cadets from the prison service, were killed in that blaze when their bus was engulfed in flames as they were on their way to evacuate a prison.

That episode counted as Israel’s worst natural disaster. The government of Mr. Netanyahu, who assumed office in 2009, came under criticism for being woefully unprepared. It was the first time that Israel, which often provides doctors and aid workers for disasters abroad, had to rely on international help as firefighting assistance arrived from across the region.

Israel has since added firefighting planes, but they do not have the capacity of larger aircraft like those that Russia was expected to send, nor can they operate at night.

The police and emergency services have been going door to door evacuating homes, schools, neighborhoods and, in some cases, whole communities. Parts of Haifa were being evacuated on Thursday, and another fire was threatening Talmon, a Jewish settlement in the West Bank.

Several homes have been destroyed in recent days in the town of Zikhron Yaaqov, south of Haifa, and in Nataf, a village in the hills outside Jerusalem. The first major fire began in the forest surrounding Neve Shalom, known in Arabic as Wahat al-Salam, or Oasis of Peace, a small cooperative community about halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem where Israeli Jews and Arabs live together.

Source: NYT > World

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