One week after brush fires destroyed hundreds of homes and displaced tens of thousands of families in the north and central regions of the country, police on Monday said the most deadly blazes have been extinguished.
Since last Tuesday, more than 3,035 hectares (7,500 acres) of forests and 1,090 hectares (2,700 acres) of urban areas have been destroyed by fires in Haifa, Zichron Ya’acov, Neveh Shalom, Modi’in, Neveh Ilan, Nataf and other areas throughout the country, according to Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund’s firefighting services.
Speaking Monday morning at a memorial ceremony at Mount Herzl for soldiers killed in the 1956 Sinai Campaign, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to rebuild the homes that were lost in the fire and replant the forests that were burned.
“In the place of every tree that was blackened, another 10 green trees will bloom,” he said. “That is what our predecessors did since the establishment of the Zionist enterprise, and that is what we will do as well: plant, build and deepen our roots.”
Netanyahu also spoke of the phone call he had a few days earlier with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, thanking him for sending firefighters to help battle the flames.
“This is the right thing to do and I appreciate it,” he said he told Abbas. “Let us not light fires, let us put them out and march together toward peace.”
Speaking in the Likud faction meeting on Monday, Netanyahu said Israel knows for certain that some of the fires that have ravaged the country are the result of “criminal and intentional” arson, and repeated that Israel views these acts of arson as acts of terrorism for all intents and purposes, and will deal with them accordingly.
There are increasing signs the wildfires were politically motivated, although there is no evidence yet the blazes were coordinated or planned in advance. Multiple police units, aided by the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) have arrested 30 Arab suspects since Thursday on suspicion of arson, or inciting arson, for their alleged roles in starting at least 17 of the 110 fires, which spread rapidly from the strong winds and arid conditions.
Since the fires broke out, the Israel Air Force used several unmanned aerial vehicles, including the Shoval and Eitan drones, to conduct reconnaissance flights.
According to Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, “There have been 334 hours of reconnaissance work by drones, gliders and the like.”
Speaking in the settlement of Halamish, northwest of Ramallah, on Sunday, Liberman said 3,500 soldiers (eight battalions in the West Bank) – including 750 reservists, 500 firefighters from the Home Front Command, and another 23 firefighters in the air – took part in battling the fires. According to the IDF, while the majority of the fires have died down, reservists have still not been released from duty.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said Monday that several detonated petrol bombs have been taken as evidence, as hundreds of officers continue to work with the Shin Bet on investigations that are ongoing.
“Out of those arrested, 16 are Arab-Israeli and 14 are Palestinians, or illegal workers from the West Bank,” said Rosenfeld, adding that six of the suspects have been released without charges. “Police units and security personnel continue to carry out investigations and make arrests as they search for suspects responsible for the fires, using concrete evidence that we gathered from each of the different fires, which have been examined by forensics teams.”
Still, Rosenfeld noted that weather conditions also played a major role in starting and spreading many of the blazes.
“All of the fires were not arson,” he said.
“Although, many of the suspects may have taken advantage of the weather conditions, which were perfect in order to carry out attacks.”
While all the major blazes have been put out, Rosenfeld cautioned that high winds and dry weather remain problematic, allowing smaller fires to start and spread.
Rosenfeld said the international aid received from multiple countries – including planes from the US, Russia, Greece, Croatia, and Turkey – was critical in helping thinly spread Israeli firefighters contain the blazes.
The US Supertanker, which arrived on Friday and is the largest aerial firefighting aircraft in the world capable of carrying up to 19,600 gallons of flame retardant and water – generated criticism by some government officials who deemed it too costly and superfluous.
However, during a Monday morning interview with Reshet Bet, Eyal Gabay, former director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office, defended the government’s use of the Supertanker, which critics argued came too late, and was little more than a PR stunt.
Citing the importance of “risk management” amid the volatile conditions, Gabay emphasized that the government must continue to exercise extreme caution.
“We know that there is a reasonable chance some of the fires are not accidental, so naturally, you want to have surplus power,” he said. “In the face of cost, let us remember what the extent of the damage is here with what the cost was to bring the Supertanker.”
Moreover, Gabay cited 2010’s deadly Mount Carmel forest fire, which killed 44 people, as an important precedent and reminder of the need to ensure maximum resources are readily available when such conflagrations endanger communities.
“We learned the hard way after the Carmel fire disaster,” he said, noting the tragedy as an example for the need to not allow financial concerns to hinder life-saving.