Netanyahu: Israel will cut through 'cruelty' of red tape to help fire victims

As sporadic fires still burn across the country, PM pledges government will confront arsonists with "all its power."

November 27, 2016 14:29
Israel cabinet meeting

Weekly cabinet meeting held this week at the Haifa Municipality ‏. (photo credit: KOBI GIDEON/GPO)

As the country’s beleaguered emergency personnel finally extinguish dozens of remaining fires that destroyed large swaths of residential and forest areas, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday vowed to expedite aid to thousands of victims who have been displaced.

Noting the gravity of the destruction, which surpassed the deadly 2010 Mount Carmel forest fire in scope – though 44 people died on the Carmel – Netanyahu said he will work in step with government agencies to ensure help is afforded to all victims in a timely fashion.

A total of 150 people have been injured, and 560 homes destroyed, officials said.
Israeli security forces evacuate homes in Nataf, near Jerusalem, as wildfires encroach properties

The cabinet held its weekly meeting in Haifa on Sunday, to send a clear message that the government will work quickly to “brutally cut through the bureaucracy” and speedily rehabilitate the lives of those affected by the fires, Netanyahu said.

To illustrate this point, he said he spoke in the morning with Rama Ben-Zvi, the owner of a popular restaurant in the Jerusalem hills that was destroyed by the fire, and told her that the government will help rebuild it. He said a number of officials have already spoken to her and her husband.

Netanyahu noted that some fires are still burning, and that the government is working on all fronts to combat the flames, “including in enforcing the law.”

“The government will act with full force against anyone who intentionally or through negligence sets a fire, or anyone inciting others to arson,” he said.

The current fires were in many ways more complex and difficult to deal with than the Mount Carmel fire, the prime minister said. Repeating a theme he has returned to a number of times since the beginning of the onslaught, Netanyahu praised himself and his government for building a squadron of firefighting airplanes after the Carmel fire.

“We have built an impressive capability to fight the fire from the ground and the air, and that has proven itself,” he said. “I don’t want to imagine what would have happened if we had not done so.”

Netanyahu thanked the many foreign governments that sent firefighting assistance, and said he is now initiating the establishment of an international firefighting force that would be coordinated not only in dealing with disasters, but also in purchasing planes and sharing in their cost.

“I have spoken to a number of leaders in the region, who have expressed interest in the idea,” he said.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said at the cabinet meeting that some of the fires ravaging the country for the last week were the result of natural causes or negligence, but some were a direct result of terrorism.

“Last night during my visit to the community of Halamish, I saw the extent of the destruction and the intensity of the fire after beasts tried to burn an entire community and all its residents,” Erdan said.

At least 17 of the 110 fires were definitively caused by arson, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman said during a visit to Halamish north of Ramallah on Sunday.

“Regarding the data as reported by the head of IDF Central Command, in this last wave there were 110 fires, and in 17 cases we can say with certainty they were caused by arson. And we are still checking additional cases,” Liberman said.

Police have arrested 37 people since Thursday on suspicion of arson or inciting arson; 24 suspects remained detained as of Sunday night. Eighteen of the suspects are Israeli Arabs. According to Ynet News, two suspects, from Umm el-Fahm and Deir Hanna, have confessed to acts of arson.

Five people have been arrested on suspicion of incitement over social media: three Jews and two Arabs. One suspect, 37, from the Ono Valley wrote on his Facebook page, “Just burn the Arab villages in retaliation for this war. To all the leftists who believe in peace, know that the Palestinian Authority reads with happiness that more places are burning.”

The suspect was detained on Saturday and released on Sunday with restrictions after admitting to the charges against him.

“I do not know exactly how many of the events were arson,” Israel Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich said on Sunday, during a visit to Halamish. “I assume the first [fire] events were more cases of negligence, and the later incidents were acts of a deliberate arson. We are investigating things in an orderly manner.”

The best answer to the fires, Liberman said, is not only to rebuild the homes that were destroyed, but to “expand the settlements.”

Liberman extended his gratitude to all the firefighters and soldiers who battled the blazes, telling reporters that 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 conflagration.

“I really want to express appreciation to all teams, including all those planes from abroad. I think that anyone who helped can see that in some cases, their contribution was crucial,” he said.

Pointing to the fires in Haifa, Liberman stated that the Greek teams “did a tremendous job, and I do not want to think about what could have happened if they were not there,” adding that he is grateful “for all teams from all countries, including the Palestinian teams. We are grateful to everyone.”

Since the wildfires began last Tuesday, special efforts have been made by West Bank troops in coordination with the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency) to locate and arrest suspected arsonists. The IDF Spokesman delivered a message stating that “the IDF is continuing specific activity to locate arsonists.”

The army has boosted its deployment in Judea and Samaria in order to catch suspected Palestinian arsonists. According to the IDF, two commando companies from the Maglan and Egoz units, as well as reconnaissance teams, have deployed to the area in addition to the regular forces already there.

On Saturday, a Palestinian suspect, seen on security footage igniting a fire in the northwestern Etzion region, was arrested by soldiers. The suspect, from the nearby village of Battir, had been spotted by a Nature and Parks Authority worker. He was handed over to the Shin Bet for further investigation.

According to the IDF Spokesman, three suspects were arrested overnight by soldiers near Deir Kaddis in the Ephraim region of Samaria after two bottles of fuel and lighters were found in their vehicle.

Three suspects, aged 17-22 from Deir Hanna in the Galilee, are to be charged in an Acre court with setting a brushfire on Friday.

Another suspect, a 22-yearold from Kafr Kana near Nazareth, will appear before a court in Tiberias to be charged with starting a fire in a wooded area in the Lower Galilee.

In response to the fires, the KKL-JNF Field and Forest Center in Ness Harim, near Beit Shemesh, opened its doors to people who were evacuated from their homes. The field center is located in the Judean Hills and offers emergency housing in its guest rooms, which can host families of up to six.

According to KKL-JNF World Chairman Danny Atar, the center offers rooms with beds, hot showers, a cafeteria where meals are provided, activities for children with counselors, and “a bit of reprieve in a supportive atmosphere.”

The site is fenced in and closely guarded, he noted.

“As part of our commitment to the Jewish people and to the citizens of Israel, we are providing – immediately, and with no time limit – living units for families who were forced to evacuate their homes due to fire,” Atar said.

“KKL-JNF foresters and firefighters are working around the clock to help stop the flames and save Israel’s forests. At the same time, we are using all our resources to help those who were adversely affected by the fires. Opening the field and forest center is the first stage,” he said.

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