Jerusalem — Israel yesterday announced new measures to cope with the rash of forest and grassland fires that some say have reached epidemic proportions. Discussion of the fires dominated last Sunday's Cabinet meeting. And the fires have prompted fears that free-lance arson attacks have become the newest tactic in the six-month Palestinian intifadah (uprising). The measures include the creation of a special police team to gather intelligence information and to coordinate responses to fires with the Israeli Army and Air Force.
``This is what we call a plague; we've never known anything like this before,'' says Abraham Kalman, a spokesman for Keren Kayemet Le-Israel, Israel's major private conservation organization.
Mr. Kalman says 450 fires in May alone consumed more than 25,000 acres of planted forests, pasture land, and orchards, mostly inside Israel rather than in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. June figures are expected to be higher, in part because of recent calls by the underground leadership of the uprising to target Israel's crop and forest land.
By comparison, there were only 650 fires last year during the entire six-month period (March through October) during which dry weather conditions make forests more vulnerable to natural fires.
The police report released yesterday says 338 fires have resulted from arson this year, some 40 percent the product of nationalist motives. Eighty percent of the fires deliberately set in June ``were caused against a nationalist background.'' Thirty-six arrests have been made this year, leading to 19 confessions.
Forested areas are prized here since Israel has been largely reclaimed from desert land. Millions of trees have been planted by Israelis since 1948. As symbols of the permanence of the Jewish state, they are said to be attractive targets of the intifadah.
Police have also begun to expand patrols and aerial surveillance in areas vulnerable to arson or to fires caused through carelessness or natural causes. And local communities around Israel are creating volunteer units to spot and fight forest fires.
Justice Ministry officials, meanwhile, are calling for quicker trials and stiffer penalties for convicted arsonists. ``Like fighting a war, it's become an all-hands effort here,'' a Police Ministry official says.
More than 2,500 acres of forest land have burned since last weekend alone, mostly torched by Arab arsonists, Israeli officials say. Five Palestinians have been arrested in the last two days for setting fires near the cities of Nazareth and Jerusalem.
Leaflet No. 19, issued by the underground leadership of the intifadah last week, calls on Palestinians to ``destroy and burn the enemy's agricultural and industrial resources.''
The instructions appear to delineate a new direction in the six-month-old uprising, the focus of which has shifted from mass demonstrations and confrontations with Israeli soldiers to more destructive, free-lance attacks on isolated Israeli targets.
What has many Israelis especially concerned is the fact that the fires have principally been set inside the ``green line'' which separates Israel from the occupied West Bank.
Together with the tossing of three petrol bombs along one of Tel Aviv's main streets last Saturday night, the fires have increased fears in Israel that the uprising is being brought closer to home and may enlist more support from Arabs actually living inside Israel as Israeli citizens.
Police sources also say the wave of fires has prompted Israeli settlers living on the West Bank to retaliate. At least eight small fires have been reported by West Bank Arabs, prompting concern that the conflict between Arabs and Jews in Palestine could devolve into a primitive kind of scorched-earth warfare.