Wildfires around Jerusalem were set deliberately, investigators suspect

Arson is suspected in the fires that scorched hundreds of acres of forestland Wednesday.

By Batya Jerenberg, World Israel News

Fire investigators have begun examining the areas scorched by wildfires Wednesday in the mountains near Jerusalem for signs that they were caused deliberately and did not just result from the summer weather and winds.

“We did not see any lightning in the skies over the country today, and we will clarify if this was arson or not later,” Fire and Rescue Commissioner Dedi Simchi told Channel 13 news Wednesday evening.

Simchi said there were two starting points to the fires in the Neve Ilan area, around 11 miles from the capital, that were seemingly man-made. In a different interview, he said he was certain that the fires were not spontaneous, but that the fire service was also considering the more benign possibility that they were the result of negligence.

Besides checking the ground itself for some kind of conclusive evidence, officials are collecting videotape from security cameras. According to Channel 12, the police have said that two youths were seen running away from at least one site where the fires began.

Efrat Shelef-Tobol, deputy manager of the local hotel that was inundated with smoke, believed it could well be arson. Interviewed by Kan News, she said that while one fire close to the hotel began at only one point, within half an hour it had managed to spread to 10 locations.

Setting forest fires is a common form of Palestinian “resistance,” with thousands of acres burned over recent years. The security fence runs close to the area, and the news station pointed out that Palestinians from Judea and Samaria had thrown Molotov cocktails over the barrier to start several small fires during last month’s rioting over the course of Operation Guardian of the Walls.

“Based on the history of the area and the tension, it could be that the reason is nationalistic,” said the fire service’s Jerusalem district commander, Nissim Twito, in an interview on Channel 13. He cautioned, however, that “at the moment, we don’t have an indication to say for certain that is the reason.”

Over 650 acres went up in flames throughout the afternoon and evening, temporarily closing roads and the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem rail line, and forcing a brief evacuation of residents of one small kibbutz, Maale Hahamisha, and nearby Abu Ghosh. More than 70 firefighting teams were called to battle the blaze, along with 10 planes and two helicopters, before it was brought under control. The work continued throughout the night to extinguish all the flames.

The fire began at the Wind Mountain national park, said the fire service. The woodlands there are jointly cared for by Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, which said in a statement that it is “one of the oldest forests in Israel that was planted almost 100 years ago by the pioneers of Neve Ilan and Ma’aleh Hahamisha, and most of it burned away.”