Residents of Israel's third largest city have been forced to leave their homes and evacuate the city as wildfires blazed through the area on Thursday, while Israeli leaders are blaming terrorists for the unmanageable fires.
Over 60,000 people from more than eight neighborhoods fled the city of Haifa as the fire quickly gained ground throughout the city due to the windy, dry weather conditions. Although no serious injuries have been reported, a few dozen people were hospitalized and treated for smoke inhalation, and hundreds of homes were damaged.
The fire in Haifa has been the largest of more than a dozen fires that have been set across the country. Israel officials were forced to call in military reservists by the hundreds for additional support, and utilized firefighting aircrafts and teams sent in from several other countries including Russia, France, Turkey, and even Palestine. Scheduled to arrive later on Friday is a Boeing 747-400 Supertanker, the largest firefighting aircraft in the world, which carries up to 75 tons of fire retardant.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited an air base in the city, telling those in attendance that the fires were considered to be "terror," a term Israeli officials usually only use when referring to Palestinian or Arab militant forces. He also expressed that Palestinian incitement played a part in encouraging the attacks, and that some Arab groups have celebrated the fires.
"It's a crime for all intents and purposes, and in our opinion it is terror for all intents and purposes," Netanyahu said.
"The instruction is to bring to justice everyone that committed such an offense to create a deterrent for others and for the simple rule that those who try burn the state of Israel will be punished to the fullest extent. There are elements of terror here, of that there is no doubt," he added.
Israeli Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan told Channel 10 Israel TV news that eight people had been arrested so far and that investigators had found "flammable materials and liquids poured in certain areas," which pointed to arson as the cause of the fires. He added, "We need to be prepared for a new type of terror."
Israel's police chief Roni Alsheich has already ordered an investigation to determine if the arsonists were were part of a larger plot. He told reporters, "It's safe to assume that whoever is setting the fires isn't doing it only out of pyromania. It's safe to assume that if it is arson it is politically motivated."
The fires started on Tuesday at the Neve Shalom community near Jerusalem, then began breaking out in other areas of Jerusalem and the northern Israeli area of Zichron Yaakov.
The implication of terror by Israeli officials will likely bring more tension to the relationship between the Jewish majority and Arab minority, with Arab groups already accusing the Israeli government of using the recent fires to incite against them.
The fires blazing across the country this week are the nation's worst since 2010, when Israel endured the single deadliest wildfire in the country's history. That fire burned for four days straight, killing 42 people, and was only extinguished after firefighting aircrafts were brought in from other countries, including the United States.