Wildfires tear across Israel, Netanyahu calls arsonists "terrorists"
Wildfires tore across central and northern Israel on Thursday, forcing tens of thousands of residents to flee the city of Haifa, as leaders blamed arsonists for some of the blazes and branded them terrorists, Reuters reported.
Television pictures showed a wall of flames raging through central neighborhoods of Israel's third largest city. Firefighters dowsed a petrol station with water as the blaze edged closer.
The fires have been burning in multiple locations for the past three days but intensified on Thursday, fueled by unseasonably dry weather and strong easterly winds.
"Every fire that was caused by arson, or incitement to arson, is terrorism by all accounts. And we will treat it as such," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told reporters gathered in Haifa. "Whoever tries to burn parts of Israel will be punished for it severely."
Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan referred to "arson terrorism" and said there had been a small number of arrests, providing no other details.
With fires burning in the forests west of Jerusalem, around Haifa, on central and northern hilltops and in parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, the government sought assistance from neighboring countries to tackle the conflagration.
Greece, Cyprus, Croatia, Turkey and Russia offered help, with several aircraft already joining efforts to quell the blaze, dropping fire-retardant material to try to douse the heaviest fires and stem their spread.
Netanyahu said he had asked for a "Super Tanker" fire fighting aircraft to be sent from the United States.
The Palestinian Authority had offered assistance as well, he said.
A thick haze of smoke hung over Haifa, which rises up from the Mediterranean Sea overlooking a large port. Schools and universities were evacuated, and two nearby prisons transferred inmates to other jails, a prisons service spokesman said. Patients were moved out of a geriatric hospital.