Tens of thousands of residents were ordered to leave Israel’s third largest city on Thursday as wildfires tore across central and northern Israel, and the country’s chief of police said politically motivated arson may be behind some of the blazes.
Reuters reports that television pictures showed a wall of flames raging through central neighborhoods of Haifa, a city of around 300,000 in the north of the country, engulfing a petrol station that fire fighters were rapidly dousing with water.
The fires have been burning in multiple locations for the past three days but intensified on Thursday, fueled by unseasonably dry weather and strong easterly winds.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the leader of a far-right party, said whoever set the fires could not have been Jewish, hinting Arabs or Palestinians were behind them. Police gave no indication of who was to blame but did say they had reason to believe arson was responsible in some cases.
“There was arson and a lot of non-arson,” Police Chief Roni Alsheich told reporters. “It’s likely that where it was arson, it goes in the direction of nationalistic,” he said, suggesting a political motive, before adding: “I don’t want to disturb the investigation.”
He said there had been some arrests but gave no details.
On social media, some Arabs and Palestinians celebrated the fires and the hashtag #Israelisburning was trending.
On Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attributed the fires to “natural and unnatural” causes and some Israeli officials referred to an “arson intifada”, a reference to previous Palestinian uprisings against Israel.
With fires burning in the forests west of Jerusalem, around Haifa, on central and northern hilltops and in parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the government sought assistance from neighboring countries to tackle the conflagration.
Greece, Cyprus, Croatia, Turkey and Russia offered help, with several aircraft already joining efforts to quell the blaze, dropping fire-retardant material to try to douse the heaviest fires and stem their spread.
A thick haze of smoke hung over Haifa, which rises up from the Mediterranean Sea overlooking a large port. Schools and universities were evacuated, and two nearby prisons transferred inmates to other jails, a prisons service spokesman said. Patients were moved out of a geriatric hospital.