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Israeli PM blames politically motivated arsonists for wildfires

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has blamed arsonists with political motives for starting wildfires across the country. Tens of thousands of people have evacuated their homes as rescue efforts are underway.

On a visit to Haifa on Thursday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said anyone implicated in setting the blaze would be severely punished.

"Every fire that was caused by arson, or incitement to arson, is terrorism by all accounts. And we will treat it as such," Netanyahu told reporters gathered in Haifa. "Whoever tries to burn parts of Israel will be punished for it severely."

The prime minister did not elaborate on the identity or motives of the suspected arsonists but Israeli authorities generally use the term "terror" to refer to a militant act committed by Arabs or Palestinians.

"It is safe to assume that whoever is setting the fires isn't doing it only out of pyromania," Israeli police chief Roni Alsheich told reporters Thursday. "It's safe to assume to if it is arson it is politically motivated."

These allegations could increase tension between Israel's Jewish majority and its Arab minority, which has often complained of discrimination in the country.

Israel Ministerpräsident Benjamin Netanjahu (picture-alliance/AP Photo/A. Sultan)

Netanyahu vowed to punish the culprits

Ayman Odeh, the head of an Arab bloc of political parties in the Israeli parliament, has called for unity. "This is something that harms all of us. This is not a story of Arab or Jew. Whoever did this is an enemy of all of us," Odeh told media.

Worst fires since 2010

Hundreds of homes have been damaged or destroyed in the fires, although there have so far been no reports of deaths or serious injuries. Several dozen people have reportedly been treated for smoke inhalation.

A lack of rain combined with very dry air and strong easterly winds have spread the fires this week across the center and north of the country, as well as parts of the West Bank.

The fires temporarily forced the closure of a highway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, and hundreds of residents have been evacuated from some neighborhoods of Haifa as the flames reached the northern city, police said.

Police said the fires started three days ago at the Neve Shalom community near Jerusalem. Fires also broke out in the northern area of Zichron Yaakov and other locations near Jerusalem.

Several countries, including Cyprus, Russia, Italy, Croatia, Turkey and Greece, have helped out Israeli firefighters with equipment. Netanyahu said he had asked for a "Super Tanker" firefighting aircraft to be sent from the United States. The Palestinian Authority had offered assistance as well, he said.

Netanyahu has thanked Russian President Vladimir Putin for his help, with Netanyahu's office saying Russia was sending two firefighting aircraft to Israel.

Israel's firefighting services were reformed after a major forest fire in northern Israel in 2010 killed 42 people. Those fires prompted the establishment of the airborne firefighting squadron.

shs/jm  (AP, dpa, AFP)

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