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Over 40 dead, thousands evacuated as fires rage in northern Israel

At least 41 people have died and an estimated 17,000 forced to flee their homes in northern Israel as the worst fire in the country's history entered its second day. International help has begun pouring in.

Firefighters in northern Israel

The fires remain out of control

More than 30 square kilometers (12 square miles) of land and at least 1.5 million trees have been scorched in forest fires in northern Israel, the country's Nature and Parks Authority said on Friday.

The fires started on Thursday, close to the port of Haifa and strong winds were pushing the flames closer to the city. National fire chief Shimon Romach said on Friday that teams were "far from bringing it under control."

International planes and helicopters swooped over the Israeli woodland, dumping seawater on the flames as Israel's fire service was overwhelmed by the blazes.

Dry ground caused by drought helped the fire spread quickly, sending up huge columns of smoke throughout the area.

National Police Commissioner David Cohen said on Friday evening that some 17,000 people had been evacuated from the area.

Plane sprays woodland with water

Planes from all over Europe have joined to fight the fires

The cause of the fire remained unclear on Friday. Police Commissioner Cohen said the fire had one ignition point and special investigators were looking into whether the fire was caused by deliberate arson or negligence.

Turkey pledges support

International firefighting planes and tons of equipment arrived in Israel on Friday as more than a dozen countries joined efforts to extinguish the fires.

There are only 1,500 firefighters operating across Israel, a number widely accepted as woefully inadequate for a country of 7.6 million people.

The fire service has no firefighting planes at its disposal, which prompted an urgent appeal for international help from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In response, offers of assistance came pouring in, and, by Friday morning, five Greek aircraft had landed in Israel, alongside a plane and a police helicopter from Cyprus, a Bulgarian plane carrying 100 firefighters and a British chopper.

The foreign ministry said it had also received pledges of help from Azerbaijan, Croatia, Egypt, France, Jordan, Romania, Russia, Spain and Turkey.

Despite lingering diplomatic tensions between Israel and Turkey, Ankara said it would send two firefighting planes in a gesture personally ordered by Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Prime Minister Netanyahu took time out to thank Erdogan for sending help - believed to be the first time the pair have spoken since Netanyahu took office 18 months ago.

Author: Gabriel Borrud, Catherine Bolsover (AFP, dpa, Reuters)
Editor: Nancy Isenson

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