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Fires in Israel: Thousands evacuated amid row over 'arson intifada'

Israel's right wing education minister said that 'only those who do not belong to a country can set it alight'
Fire threatens to engulf a tower block in Haifa (AFP)

About 60,000 people have been told to evacuate their homes in Israel on the third day of raging forest fires, as the country’s education minister appeared to blame Arab residents for the blaze.

Forest fires that broke out on Tuesday continued to rage into Thursday, with tens of thousands of people in the northern West Bank told to leave their homes.

Hot, dry winds have been fanning the flames, and officials say the fires are likely to burn into next week thanks to heavy gusts.

Dozens of people have been treated for smoke inhalation. On Thursday Haifa Prison was evacuated as fires reached the edges of Israel’s third-largest city, which has a population of around 600,000.

Israel has called in assistance from Turkey, Russia, Greece, Italy, Cyprus and Croatia to help tackle the crisis.

Army and reservists are helping civil defence teams with efforts to calm the blaze.

Police have said there is evidence that some of the fires were set deliberately, with reports that five new fires were started simultaneously on Thursday.

Four Palestinians were reportedly arrested on Thursday over the fires. Israeli police chief Roni Alsheich said that, if it is proved the fires were arson, he believes they were the result of people "taking advantage of the opportunity" rather than being coordinated attacks.

"Almost 50% of the fires are apparently arson," Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan told Army Radio on Wednesday.

The Israeli army is also investigating evidence that one large fire started after a conscripted soldier threw a lit cigarette into an area close to a checkpoint.

Ynet, the most popular online news site in Israel, has branded the fires the "Arson Intifada", with the moniker taking off on social media.

The Arabic hashtag IsraelIsBurning was one of the biggest Twitter trends worldwide on Thursday afternoon.

Many of the tweets welcomed the fires, or insinuated that they are deserved given recent policy decisions taken by the Israeli government.

Translation: Yesterday they banned the Islamic call to prayer in Palestinian areas – now they are getting divine retribution: And who is more unjust than he who prevents the name of Allah from being mentioned in His mosques [Qur’anic quote – 2:114]

Palestinian civil defence units have also been active in tackling the blazes, including in areas close to Israeli settlements such as Tulkarem.

However, Israel’s education minister Naftali Bennett – a right-winger with big influence in the coalition government appeared to make a veiled accusation against Israel’s Arab population on Wednesday.

Translation: Only those who do not belong to this country are able to set it alight

However, the Israeli police have attempted to pour cold water over such accusations, with spokesperson Merav Lapidot saying "it is too early" to determine the cause of the fires that have broken out in the last few days. "These matters must be investigated," he said.

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