60,000 Is­raelis evac­u­ated amid fires linked to ‘ter­ror’

Baltimore Sun - - WORLD - By Ruth Eglash As­so­ci­ated Press con­trib­uted.

JERUSALEM — More than 60,000 peo­ple from the north­ern city of Haifa were evac­u­ated from their homes Thurs­day as fire­fight­ers battle mas­sive blazes that have gripped the coun­try over the past three days.

Five coun­tries, in­clud­ing Rus­sia and Turkey, sent fire­fight­ing planes to as­sist Is­rael in tack­ling the fires, which of­fi­cials said may have been started in­ten­tion­ally.

Is­rael’s in­ter­nal se­cu­rity agen­cies are looking into the causes of the blazes, which started Monday night and have bro­ken out in sev­eral other places around the coun­try.

Prime Min­is­ter Ben­jamin Ne­tanyahu vis­ited Haifa on Thurs­day to meet with fire and po­lice chiefs. He said that if the fires were started by ar­son­ists, those re­spon­si­ble “will be pun­ished gravely.”

“It’s a crime for all in­tents and pur­poses and in our opin­ion it is ter­ror for all in­tents and pur­poses,” Ne­tanyahu said.

Ne­tanyahu did not elab­o­rate on the iden­tity or mo­tives of the sus­pected ar­son­ists, but Is­raeli of­fi­cials typ­i­cally use the term “ter­ror” to re­fer to Arab or Pales­tinian mil­i­tant ac­tiv­ity.

Of­fi­cials said that about 10 fire­fight­ing planes from Croa­tia, Cyprus, Greece and Italy, as well as Rus­sia and Turkey, had ei­ther ar­rived in Is­rael or were on their way. The Pales­tinian Au­thor­ity also said it would send fire crews.

Ne­tanyahu spoke Thurs­day with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, who agreed to send two mas­sive fire­fight­ing planes that could drop wa­ter on the blazes. Lo­cal me­dia re­ported that a su­per­tanker fire­fight­ing plane would ar­rive from the A man cov­ers his head near burn­ing trees in a sub­urb of the coastal city of Haifa, north of Is­rael on Thurs­day. U.S. in 24 hours.

Weather ex­perts said the fires, which be­gan in bush ar­eas, had spread widely be­cause of gusty winds fol­low­ing the dry sum­mer months.

In Haifa, au­thor­i­ties re­moved res­i­dents from at least 10 neigh­bor­hoods. Al­though no fa­tal­i­ties were re­ported, dam­age was said to be wide­spread and a few hun­dred peo­ple were treated for smoke in­hala­tion. Sev­eral large build­ings were en­gulfed by the fires.

In ad­di­tion to call­ing for help from abroad and di­rect­ing all its fire­fight­ing forces to Haifa, the Is­raeli mil­i­tary de­ployed two search-and-res­cue bat­tal­ions to the area, and re­servists from the Home­front Com­mand were brought in to as­sist in evac­u­at­ing civil­ians.

Some wit­nesses said the city, Is­rael’s third-largest, re­sem­bled a “war zone.”

As the fire con­tin­ued to burn, Haifa res­i­dents re­mem­bered a deadly brush fire in 2010 in which 44 prison guards were burned alive on a bus as they at­tempted to reach and evac­u­ate a prison. Is­rael’s prison ser­vices said this time, too, that two prisons in the area would be emp­tied.

Yael Hamer, a res­i­dent of Haifa who was evac­u­ated from her home Thurs­day, told jour­nal­ists that the sit­u­a­tion now was worse than the fire six years ago, when the fire was con­tained to the forests next to Haifa.

“Now it is res­i­den­tial ar­eas where there are many pri­vate homes. It is near schools, gas sta­tions, and there are a lot of cars that are stuck in traf­fic jams as peo­ple try to leave Haifa,” Hamer said.

The first fire be­gan Monday night near Neve Shalom, a small com­mu­nity half­way be­tween Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, where Jews and Arabs live to­gether. Just as that fire was brought un­der con­trol, an­other erupted in Zichron Yaakov, a town just south of Haifa. Dozens of res­i­dents there were forced from their homes, and sev­eral houses were de­stroyed.

On Wed­nes­day, a fire in the com­mu­nity of Nataf in the Jerusalem Hills dam­aged prop­erty. Is­raeli po­lice said they had de­tained four Pales­tini­ans be­lieved to have started the fire, al­though it was not clear whether it was on­pur­pose or by neg­li­gence.

Through­out the night Wed­nes­day, fire­fight­ers bat­tled blazes in other ar­eas, too.

GIL ELIYAHU/EPA

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