Israel douses fires that forced mass evacuations

Halamish Settlement (Palestinian Territories) (AFP) - Firefighters have extinguished blazes that ravaged Israel and the occupied West Bank for five days and forced tens of thousands to flee, authorities said Sunday, blaming arsonists for some outbreaks.

There were no deaths but 122 people were treated for injuries, mainly smoke inhalation, medical officials said.

Around 700 homes were damaged or destroyed as the flames fed by high winds ripped through thousands of hectares (acres).

Firefighting planes from a list of countries flew low over the hills of the occupied West Bank and Israel, dropping tonnes of water and retardants.

At one point last week, flames towered over an area near Jerusalem, and residents on Sunday surveyed charred homes and businesses.

"There are no active sites left," fire and rescue service spokesman Yoram Levy told AFP. "Since last night (Saturday) it's pretty calm. We have no new activity."

Levy said firefighters dealt with about 2,000 fires in Israel and the West Bank, 20 of them major.

Israeli authorities suspect some were set deliberately and linked to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman said Sunday 17 of 110 fires in the West Bank were so far determined to be arson, without elaborating.

Speaking at the Israeli settlement of Halamish, where dozens of homes were damaged at the weekend, he said Israel should respond to any arson by building more settlement homes.

Police have arrested 23 people suspected of setting fires and interrogated others.

- On high alert -

However, Palestinian authorities also joined in the massive international firefighting effort and have pointed to damage to their crops and land.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a rare phone call to Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas on Saturday to thank him for those efforts.

Levy noted forces were still "on high alert" because of dry conditions and high winds not expected to change before rain expected on Wednesday.

Highlighting the continued risk, a forest fire was extinguished Sunday near Kiryat Malakhi in southern Israel.

Israeli firefighters had since Tuesday been battling wildfires throughout the country which on Thursday hit major city Haifa, forcing tens of thousands to evacuate their homes.

Israel's cabinet met in Haifa Sunday in an act of solidarity, with Netanyahu saying he hoped to form a multi-national firefighting force in the future.

"We will help you rebuild your homes and your lives forthwith and this is the main goal of this special cabinet meeting this morning in Haifa," he said.

Around 1,000 residents of Halamish near Ramallah in the West Bank had to flee overnight Friday to Saturday.

Eighteen homes there were destroyed and another 35 had various degrees of damage, a spokeswoman for settlements in the area said.

Residents suspected the fire was started deliberately and authorities were investigating.

- 'Act of war' -

"I got my family out and moved them a few hundred metres (yards) down the road, and I came back to knock on my neighbours' doors," Doron Cohen, 50, told AFP at the settlement on Sunday.

The smell of smoke was heavy in the air, the debris of burnt homes blackening the ground.

When he returned, flames were shooting high, said Cohen, whose house was badly damaged.

He alleged arson was the cause, calling it "an act of war".

Firefighting planes from Israel and countries including Russia, Turkey, Greece, France, Spain and Canada battled the outbreaks.

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

Palestinian authorities sent 41 firefighters and eight trucks on Friday to help in Haifa and the Jerusalem area. They returned to the West Bank late Saturday.

Israel's Nature and Parks Authority said tens of thousands of hectares (acres) of forest and shrubland had burned.

Fires in Palestinian areas of the West Bank were also extinguished by Saturday night, with the Ramallah-based Civil Defence saying it had dealt with 143 blazes which burned crops and trees but caused no casualties.

Israel's right-wing politicians have spoken out harshly in response to suspicions of arson.

At Halamish on Sunday, Education Minister Naftali Bennett said that "the person who threw the firebomb -- which was found -- that lit the fire here tried to murder the residents of an entire settlement, no less".

Dozens of olive trees near the Palestinian village of Deir Nizam near Halamish were also destroyed, and five Palestinian villages were without electricity overnight, residents told AFP.