December 16, 2019

Israel wildfires: Tens of thousands evacuated and world countries scramble to offer aid

Israel has been fighting wildfires around the country since Nov. 22 and has enlisted the aid of other countries as firefighters battle to put out flames damaging houses and forcing thousands to evacuate

The rash of fires are the worst since 2010, when Israel suffered the single deadliest wildfire in its history. That blaze burned out of control for four days, killed 42 people and was extinguished only after firefighting aircraft from as far away as the United States arrived and brought it under control.

This week’s fires were spread across several places in the country.

About 80,000 people have been told to evacuate their homes as wildfires swept into Israel’s third largest city of Haifa.

The fires follow a two-month drought and are being fanned by strong winds in the north of the city.

Wildfires were also threatening homes near Jerusalem and in the West Bank.

Israel’s police chief said arson was suspected in some cases and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu said any such attacks would amount to “terror”.

“Every fire that was the result of arson or incitement to arson is terror in every way and we’ll treat it as such,” he was quoted by Haaretz newspaper as saying.

Israeli official alludes to Palestinians and Abbas responds

Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing religious Jewish Home party, appeared to suggest Arab or Palestinian involvement in the fires, writing on Twitter: “Only those to whom the country does not belong are capable of burning it.”

The comments brought an angry reaction from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah movement, which said Israeli officials were “exploiting the fire” to accuse Palestinians.

“What is burning are our trees and our land of historical Palestine,” he said in a statement.

Car passing fire in Haifa

On social media, the Arabic-language hashtag #Israel_on_fire began trending, with most tweets expressing pleasure over the outbreak.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan told Channel 10 TV news that eight people had been arrested.

He said arson was suspected in about half of the fires and police had found “flammable materials and liquids poured in certain areas”.

Israeli media reported that the Shin Bet internal security agency was involved in the investigation.

Meanwhile, hundreds of military reservists have been called up to help battle the three-day outbreak of fires.

In Haifa, the city council said several neighbourhoods will be without electricity overnight.

People loaded up supermarket trolleys with belongings, while schools, kindergartens, universities and an old people’s hospital were evacuated.

More than 130 people have been taken to hospital with minor injuries, mainly from smoke inhalation, but most were later discharged, Haaretz reported.

Two prisons near Haifa have also been evacuated.

Further south, Highway 443 – which links Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, crossing through the West Bank – was closed to morning traffic on Thursday as another blaze reached the city of Modi’in.

Homes and cars were damaged, and 300 students were evacuated from a school in Talmon, an Israel settlement in the occupied West Bank, police said.

Firefighters have been battling fires in several locations since Tuesday and forecasters are warning that the dry conditions and strong winds are likely to continue until early next week.

Countries send aid to fight fires across Israel

The Countries that have dispatched aid to Israel for extinguishing its fires are Greece, Italy, Croatia, Russia, Cyprus, and Turkey. The aid amounts to 10 planes.

Israeli PM Netanyahu had talked with President of Russia Vladimir Putin, requesting aid in subduing the wave of fires currently raging across Israel.

Putin responded quickly to the PM’s request, saying that Russia would immediately send two giant Beriev Be-200 planes for extinguishing fires.

Netanyahu thanked Putin for the response and aid.

Additionally, Turkey this morning sent one of its large fire-extinguishing planes for support. Netanyahu said that he valued the aid from Turkey.

Relations between Turkey and Israel declined in 2010 following an Israeli naval raid on a Turkish aid ship en route to deliver humanitarian aid to the blockaded Gaza Strip. The raid killed 10 activists. In June, the two countries signed an agreement in Rome according to which Turkey dropped all cases against the incident.

 A forest fire in Nataf near Jerusalem, Israel, 23 November 2016. (EPA Photo)

Israeli Minister of Interior Security Gilad Erdan also said, “I am happy to see that the decision I made along with the PM to request airborne aid from neighboring countries is quickly coming to fruition. The aid from neighboring countries has come so quickly, which testifies to the depth of relations between those countries and Israel. Cooperation from the air will be a determining factor in subduing the fires, and I hope that we will indeed be able to subdue all the fires across Israel.”

Egypt will send two helicopters, while Jordan is set to dispatch a number of fire trucks

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also announced on Friday that both Egypt and Jordan had offered help to Israel in fighting the fires that have engulfed much of the country for four days.

Egypt will send two helicopters, while Jordan is set to dispatch a number of fire trucks.

Fire Truck

Palestinians firefighters already contributing

Palestinians firefighters from the West Bank are already contributing to the effort. The Palestinian Authority sent four crews into Israel in the north via the Gilboa crossing to assist teams in Haifa, with eight trucks in total now working with their Israeli counterparts.
“Fire doesn’t distinguish between Jews and Arabs,” MK Ayman Odeh chairman of the Joint List stated earlier on Thursday.

“It is heart breaking to see Carmel in flames. This is not the time for incitement. It is the time to join forces and do everything possible to save Carmel.”

Also on Friday, the Muslim nation and Israel’s regional ally Azerbaijan committed to sending a plane to add to the growing number of foreign forces battling the fires.