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Israeli settlers flee homes as West Bank wildfires spread

About 1,000 residents flee Halamish settlement near Ramallah as 45 homes are damaged or destroyed by fire
Croatian firefighting plane helps extinguish blaze near Israeli town of Nataf, west of Arab-Israeli town of Abu Ghosh, along border with occupied West Bank (Reuters)

Wildfires near Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank forced hundreds to flee their homes after mass evacuations in Israel and more than a dozen arrests, police said on Saturday.

Israeli and Palestinian firefighters, helped by foreign aircraft, have been battling dozens of bush blazes fed by drought and high winds that have seen tens of thousands of people evacuated.

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

Police spokeswoman Luba Samri told Deutsche Welle that the Halamish fire erupted in several locations and quickly spread throughout the settlement. Wildfires, but no evacuations, were also reported near the West Bank settlements of Dolev, Alfei Menashe and Karnei Shomron.

Firefighting planes from Israel and countries including Russia, Turkey, Greece, France, Spain and Canada continued to dump tonnes of water and retardants on fires at locations including the village of Nataf, near Jerusalem.

A police spokeswoman said the large-scale effort managed to bring the Nataf blaze under control by Saturday afternoon, allowing residents to return.

A newly arrived US Supertanker, considered the largest firefighting aircraft in the world, joined the emergency operation on Saturday.

Police said they had arrested 14 people on suspicion of negligence or deliberately starting fires, without providing details about their identities.

In the country's third city, Haifa, where tens of thousands of people had been evacuated on Thursday from the path of towering flames that threatened entire neighbourhoods, residents have begun returning home to assess the damage.

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Friday there was "no doubt" that some of the fires had been deliberately set.

"There is a price to pay for the crimes committed, there is a price to pay for arson terrorism," he said.

Leaders who are Palestinian citizens of Israel have argued that their community, which makes up about 17.5 percent of the country's population, is as much affected by the fires as Jews.

The Palestinians joined the efforts overnight to extinguish the blazes, sending 41 firefighters and eight trucks to Haifa.

Netanyahu telephoned Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas on Saturday to thank him for their help, the premier's office said in a statement.

Haifa municipality estimated the damage in the city at $120m, and said that of the 1,784 homes affected by the fires, 572 were no longer habitable.

Israel's Nature and Parks Authority issued a statement saying that 13,000 hectares (32,000 acres) of forest and shrubland have been burned in recent days.

Local media cited authorities as saying about 700 homes have so far been damaged or destroyed by the fires.

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