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Israel hit by wildfires

JERUSALEM (AFP) – Wildfires near Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank have forced hundreds to flee their homes, after mass evacuations in Israel and more than a dozen arrests, police said 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.

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

Blazes were also reported near the West Bank settlements of Dolev, Alfei Menashe and Karnei Shomron, although there were no evacuations there.

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 close to 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 Thursday from the path of towering flames which threatened entire neighbourhoods, residents have begun returning home to assess the damage.

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

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday there was ‘‘no doubt’’ that some of the fires had been deliberate.

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

Arab Israeli leaders 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.

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