The devastating wildfires in Haifa appear to have died down, and now one can see the level of damage caused to the city:
However other fires were still smouldering when Shabbat began, and over Shabbat more destructive fires broke out or were deliberately set, particularly in the towns of Bet Meir and Neveh Tzuf-Halamish.
According to security forces, after the initial fires, arsonists “jumped on the bandwagon“:
Amid signs that the wave of wildfires that have blight Israel since Tuesday was being brought under control, Israeli security officials on Saturday night gave preliminary indications that weather was the prime cause of the initial blazes but that arsonists jumped on the bandwagon increasingly from Wednesday and into the weekend.
Israeli security forces have arrested more than 30 people suspected of either arson or encouraging others to commit arson since Tuesday, as the dozens of wildfires have swept through the country, destroying hundreds of homes and businesses and forcing tens of thousands to flee. At least 23 were still in custody on Saturday night, of whom more than 10 were Palestinians
As I mentioned on Friday, the town of Bet Meir in the Jerusalem hills suffered very severe damage over Thursday night and into Friday morning. Residents described their terrible experience:
One couple related their escape from the burning community: “We got into the car and started to flee the scene. There was a huge fire at the entrance to the community, and we couldn’t get out.
“Hundreds of cars there, and we can’t get out. We saw the fire right in front of us. Terrifying…
“We saw the giant flames right in front of us. After that more firefighting teams started to arrive…
“They cleared the way for us… and we just traveled, without even seeing where we were going.
Another couple noted: “The uncertainty was very frightening…we heard the police yelling outside…in a couple of minutes we managed to be driving out in our car, but the entrance of the community was blocked.”
“That sudden fear that you’re lost….
“There’s a big traffic jam, everything gets filled with smoke…everybody’s choking inside their cars…moments you can’t understand at all.
“Everyone is under pressure the police the army…there’s no water to put out the fires…there were thirty people trapped in a building.”
Residents of Beit Meir, which is just off the Jerusalem-Tel Aviv highway, were evacuated from their homes, including 300 people at the guest house, most of them to the nearby town of Shoresh, others to their families in other places.
Watch this video as the firefighters enter Bet Meir:
The worst fire over Shabbat took place in the Samarian town of Neveh Tzuf-Halamish. The devastation there was horrific, with dozens of houses completely burnt and others severely damaged, though once again we have to thank G-d and the firefighters that there have been no casualties.
On Friday night, all the residents – 350 families – of the town of Neve Tzuf (Halamish) in Samaria were forced to leave their homes after arsonists set fire to 3 different locations throughout the town.
Fifteen houses were completely destroyed and collapsed, while 25 other houses were seriously damaged from the flames.
Four civilians were lightly injured, including two firefighters.
Three firefighting teams from the Palestinian Authority helped to battle the blaze.
A spokesperson for Neve Tzuf said, “The town has suffered a blow tonight, but we’re strong and we’ll manage to deal with it. The town’s welfare staff and the Binyamin Regional Council are working to take care of all the residents’ needs.”
Watch the firefighting teams enter the town and call on the residents to evacuate:
Neve Tzuf resident Miri Ovadia described the town’s ordeal:
Arutz Sheva reported:
“We had an extremely difficult, though miraculous Shabbat, last night at around 10-11 o’clock a major fire was caused by terrorists who put this community on fire in three different places, and because of the crazy winds that we had, the fire spread very, very quickly,” Ovadiya said.
“We received messages to leave our houses immediately, to evacuate the community, no much time [sic] to think, I took my son and drove out of there…we were evacuated to two nearby communities, welcomed wonderfully by the people, mostly to ensure that the security forces can continue fighting the fire, which they did, for the entire Friday night, Shabbat morning, until they managed to put it out. We’re extremely lucky and blessed that there’s no loss in life after this crazy tragedy…”
“The security forces tracked down people that were seen setting the place on fire and running off, and the security forces are trying to find these people,” Ovadiya said.
She also noted that over 60 families are not yet allowed to return to their homes, and the community is trying to find solutions for them for the next month, until they will be allowed to start rebuilding their lives.
This is what investigations of arson discovered:
The Times of Israel has a summary of the fires and the efforts to combat them over the weekend:
The newly arrived US supertanker, considered the largest firefighting aircraft in the world, joined the emergency operation on Saturday afternoon, beginning with the fires burning in the Jerusalem hills, where firefighters have been struggling to contain the flames since Tuesday.
The main highway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, Route 1, was shut briefly on Saturday afternoon between the Sha’ar Hagai and Horesh interchanges, as the massive plane went into action.
In Halamish, a blaze that was brought under control in earlier in the day rekindled in three different locations on Saturday afternoon.
Blazes were also reported near the West Bank settlements of Dolev, Alfei Menashe and Karnei Shomron, although there were no evacuations there. In northern Israel, firefighters on Saturday brought under control a fire that broke out at the Harashim community in the Galilee, and residents were allowed to return to their homes.
Near the northern city of Nazareth Illit, six firefighting teams were working Saturday afternoon to extinguish a fire that broke out in the Churchill Forest, the Ynet news website reported. Over the past 24 hours there were five fires in the forest.
In Nataf, built atop a hillside on the outskirts of Jerusalem, inhabitants were evacuated for the third time in four days Friday, as renewed wildfire reached the community despite the best efforts of scores of firefighters to beat back the flames that threatened numerous homes there and elsewhere in the nearby area.
Famed Nataf restaurant Rama’s Kitchen burned to the ground in the afternoon, just a short time after a wedding party was forced to flee along with the staff. Restaurant owner Maya Ben Zvi, who watched as the building went up in flames, also saw damage to her home in the community. She too pledged to start over.
Help arrived for Israel from all over the world:
Firefighting planes from Israel and countries including Cyprus, Russia, Turkey, Greece, France, Spain and Canada continued to dump tons of water and retardants on fires at various locations, including Nataf, on Saturday. The Palestinian Authority has also joined the efforts to extinguish the blazes, sending 41 firefighters and eight trucks to massive fires in the northern city of Haifa. Palestinian firefighters from Ramallah also joined forces with their Israeli counterparts on Friday night to battle the blaze in Halamish. And on Saturday, the PA fire chief was due to visit the Israeli fire service command centers in Rishon Letzion and Neve Ilan.
Ynet has a heart-warming piece on the cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian firefighting teams:
Eight firefighting brigades form the Palestinian Authority came to Israel overnight Thursday to help the local firefighters battle the blazes in Haifa and Sha’ar Hagai, the first time that Palestinian firefighters have crossed into Israel to offer professional assistance since the Carmel fires in 2010.
About 20 Palestinian firefighters came after the PA offered their help, the very first extra-Israeli source to do so. Suhail Abed, a firefighter from Qalqilya who serves in the Jenin area, said, “From our point of view, above all saving lives is what leads us, and so we decided to come. Our motivation is very high, and we’re happy to give help and human assistance.” He said that firefighting cooperation was also taking place in the West Bank, but there, the fires were more under control.
Egypt and Jordan also offered to aid Israel in fighting the fires raging in the country on Friday morning. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accepted both their offers. Egypt is sending two firefighting helicopters, and Jordan is sending fire trucks.
They also have a great photo essay on Israel’s friends in need who came to our help. Click the link to see more:
Our Christian residents also helped out as much as they could:
And one more item to give pause for thought and hope on this very difficult weekend, here is the story (Hebrew only) about the widow of the firefighter Danny Hayat z”l, who died in the Carmel fire of 2010. Hofit Hayat has become a firefighter herself, and while tackling a blaze in the Menashe forests, she was given a helmet – belonging to her late husband! Was that coincidence or a sign from Heaven? You be the judge.
Kol hakavod to this extraordinarily brave woman. Kol hakavod to all the firefighters, whether Israeli, Palestinian, Arabs, Europeans, Americans and everyone in between, who have come to the aid of Israel in this pressing time.
May the coming week and the upcoming month of Kislev (ironically the month of candles and light on Hanukkah) bring better news.