International effort puts out wildfires in Israel, West Bank

JERUSALEM • Firefighters have extinguished blazes that ravaged settlements in Israel and the West Bank and forced tens of thousands to flee their homes, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to thank him for sending help.

"There are no active sites left," fire and rescue service spokesman Yoram Levy told AFP yesterday.

"Since last night it's pretty calm, we have no new activity."

Israeli firefighters had, since last Tuesday, been battling wildfires throughout the country. The blaze hit major city Haifa on Thursday, forcing thousands to evacuate.

Firefighting planes from Israel and other countries, including Russia, Turkey, Greece, France, Spain and Canada, dumped tonnes of water and retardants on the fires.

On Saturday a Boeing 747 Supertanker, the world's largest firefighting plane, was put to work in an area near the main highway between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv after arriving from the United States.

Palestinians joined the efforts, sending 41 firefighters and eight trucks.

A statement released by the PM's office said Mr Netanyahu had called Mr Abbas last Saturday over the gesture.

The Prime Minister also "appreciates the fact that Jews and Arabs have opened their homes for victims of the blazes", the statement said.

The rare talk between Israeli and Palestinian leaders came a day after Mr Netanyahu and other right-wing leaders pointed the finger at Arab Israelis, suggesting they committed "arson-terrorism". In response, Palestinian leaders accused Mr Netanyahu of stirring up "incitement" against Israel's Arab minority.

The Israeli authorities suspect that some of the fires may have been of criminal origin and linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Police arrested 23 people suspected of lighting fires and interrogated another seven.

Around 1,000 residents had to leave the Halamish settlement near Ramallah as 45 homes were damaged or destroyed by fire, a police spokesman said.

Blazes were also reported near the West Bank settlements of Dolev, Alfei Menashe and Karnei Shomron, although there were no evacuations there.

Experts said an unusually dry and windy weather condition had helped stoke the fires that broke out last week and spread across half of the country.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, XINHUA

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 28, 2016, with the headline 'International effort puts out wildfires in Israel, West Bank'. Print Edition | Subscribe