TEL AVIV – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Wednesday that there was “evidence of arson” relating to the wildfires sweeping across Israel.
“Our first goal is saving lives and I ask residents to do exactly what the authorities ask of them. Our second goal is putting out the fires,” Netanyahu said after visiting the Fire and Rescue Service coastal district forward command center.
“There is also some evidence of arson,” the prime minister said, but did not explain further.
Homes were destroyed, highways were shut down and mass evacuations were ordered as a result of wildfires in different locations across the country over the last 48 hours. Fires were put out in Zichron Yaakov in the country’s north and in Gilon, with some of the evacuees being able to return home.
However strong winds and dry conditions sparked more fires in the center of the country around Modiin, the hills surrounding Jerusalem and in the north around Haifa on Thursday morning.
A fire inspector reaffirmed the prime minister’s suspicions that several of the fires may have been arson.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett also voiced similar suspicions Wednesday night.
Bennett wrote on Twitter that “only someone who this land does not belong to would be capable of setting fire to it,” seemingly in reference to the country’s Arab community.
Earlier in the day, Maj.-Gen. Amos Yaakov, commander of the Coastal District police, said the blazes may be the result of nationalist-driven arson.
“When you’re battling six fronts at once, your suspicions run high, but I cannot say for sure,” he said.
Israel has reached out for foreign assistance in extinguishing the fires, calling it the “largest firefighting operation since the Carmel disaster” in reference to a deadly 2010 fire that destroyed 12,000 acres of land and claimed 44 lives.
Officials warned that due to worsening weather conditions in the coming days the fires were likely to get worse. Assistance is expected from several European countries including Greece, Cyprus, Croatia, Russia, Italy and perhaps Turkey.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan and Israel Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich said that the suspicions of foul play instigated an increase in the presence of police patrols in certain areas.