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Israel on fire: Counting cost of a nationwide inferno

    Firefighters at work in Haifa
    Firefighters at work in Haifa

    Over 32,000 acres of land and nearly 600 homes were ravaged in the blazes that burned across Israel for eight days.

    The fires, which had mostly died down by Saturday night, were exacerbated by a prolonged dry season and strong winds, although in some cases arsonists were responsible.

    The worst damage was in Haifa, where 527 homes and apartments were destroyed. Houses were also burned down in nearby Zichron Yaakov, in the village of Bet Meir in the Jerusalem hills, and in the settlement of Halamish in the West Bank.

    Around 180 casualties were treated as a result of the fires. Most were suffering from light injuries, with the exception of an elderly woman who was in severe condition after inhaling smoke from a blaze near Maale Adumim, east of Jerusalem.

    Firefighters recorded around 1,700 separate blazes, with 90 classified as serious. Police are treating 40 of these as suspected cases of arson. Thirty people, mainly Israeli-Arabs and Palestinians, have been arrested or questioned on suspicion of starting fires or inciting others to arson. Several Israeli Jews were also detained for allegedly inciting revenge.

    According to the IDF, of 110 blazes across the Green Line in the West Bank, 17 were the result of arson. In other areas, the fires were attributed to negligence, including, in one case, a flare used by Border Police who had been chasing suspects.

    The allegations of arson motivated by nationalism have stoked a political furore. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party, tweeted: "Only someone who doesn't own the land is capable of setting it on fire". Other ministers called on the government to revoke the citizenship of those convicted of arson.

    Politicians on the left reacted angrily to what they described as an attempt to use the blazes to incite hatred of the Arab community, especially as many blazes also occurred near Arab towns.

    Firefighting aircraft from Russia, Cyprus, Turkey and Greece took part in trying to put out the blazes, as well as a specially converted Boeing 747 "supertanker", which was ordered from the US. Fire brigade crews from the Palestinian Authority also crossed the Green Line to help their Israeli colleagues. For some Israelis however, the international aid highlighted the inadequacy of Israel's own fire-fighting services.

    Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was discussing a plan to establish an international force of firefighting aircraft together with other Mediterranean countries.

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