Firefighters have extinguished blazes that ravaged Israel and the occupied West Bank for five days and forced tens of thousands to flee, authorities said today, blaming arsonists for some outbreaks. There were no deaths but some 122 people were treated for injuries, mainly due to smoke inhalation, medical officials said.
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Around 700 homes were damaged or destroyed as the blazes fed by high winds and dry conditions ripped through thousands of hectares. In recent days, firefighting planes from a list of countries could be seen sloping low over the hills of the occupied West Bank and Israel dropping tonnes of water and retardants.
At one point last week, flames towered over an area near Jerusalem, and residents on Sunday were left surveying their charred homes and businesses. “There are no active sites left,” fire and rescue service spokesman Yoram Levy told AFP. “Since last night it’s pretty calm. We have no new activity.”
According to Levy, firefighters dealt with about 2,000 fires in Israel and the West Bank, 20 of them major. The Israeli authorities suspect that some of the fires were set alight on purpose and linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said today that 17 of 110 fires in the West Bank were so far determined to be arson, without providing further details. Speaking at the Israeli settlement of Halamish in the West Bank, where dozens of homes were damaged at the weekend, he said Israel should respond to any arson by building more settlement homes.
Police have arrested 23 people suspected of lighting fires and interrogated another seven. However, Palestinian authorities also joined in the massive international effort to douse the fast-spreading fires and have pointed to damage to their crops and land.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a rare phone call to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas on Saturday to thank him for those efforts. Lieberman also thanked the Palestinians.
Levy noted forces were still “on high alert” due to dry conditions and high winds that were not expected to change prior to rainfall expected on Wednesday. In an example of the risks, a forest fire was extinguished today near Kiryat Malakhi in southern Israel.