By Steven Scheer
MODI’IN, Israel, Nov 24 – An easterly wind whipped up more forest and brush fires across Israel and the West Bank on Thursday, temporarily forcing the closure of a highway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and a senior minister said he suspected many blazes were deliberate.
A lack of rain combined with very dry air and strong easterly winds have spread the fires this week across central and northern Israel, as well as parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Scores of homes have been damaged or destroyed, although no deaths or serious injuries have been reported.
“Almost 50 percent of the fires are apparently arson,” Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan told Army Radio, while Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the leader of a far-right party, suggested those who set them could not be Jewish.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said investigators had not yet been able to determine whether any of the dozens of fires reported countrywide had been set deliberately. But he said four people were arrested on Wednesday after negligently starting a bonfire and were set to appear in court on Thursday.
Bennett, the leader of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, said on Twitter that arsonists were disloyal to the state, and hinted that those who set the fires could not be Jewish.
“Only those to whom the country does not belong are capable of burning it,” he said in a tweet in Hebrew.
Highway 443, which links Jerusalem and Tel Aviv crossing through the West Bank, was temporarily closed to morning rush-hour traffic on Thursday as flames reached the city of Modi’in, about half way between the two major conurbations.
Large fires were also burning within the boundaries of Haifa, Israel’s third largest city, and residents were told to leave their homes.
Israel has requested aerial firefighting support from Croatia, Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Russia, police spokesman Rosenfeld said. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke on Wednesday to his Croatian and Greek counterparts seeking help.
Turkey has also sent a plane to Israel, Netanyahu’s office said on Thursday, bringing the total number of foreign aircraft supporting Israel’s fire-fighting efforts to 10.
An Israeli squadron of firefighting aircraft has been in action since the fires took hold on Monday, dumping payloads of red fire-retardant material on the flames.
Rosenfeld said most of the smaller fires were under control but there were still four major blazes that needed tackling.
Local weather forecasters have said the tinder-dry conditions — it has not rained in parts of Israel for months — and strong winds are set to continue for several days and they see little prospect of usual seasonal rains arriving.
“I am asthmatic and I’m worried that the winds make the fires difficult to tackle. If arson is involved, this is far from over,” said Catherine Gordon, a Modi’in resident.
In 2010 a major forest fire in northern Israel in similar weather conditions that raged for several days killed 42 people, prompting reform of firefighting services and the establishment of the airborne firefighting squadron.