By Rami Amichai
HAIFA, Israel (Reuters) - Tens of thousands of residents were ordered to leave Israel's third largest city on Thursday as wildfires tore through Haifa and threatened other areas, including the Israeli-occupied West Bank, fueled by unusually dry conditions and an easterly wind.
A senior minister in the Israeli government said he believed many of the blazes had been deliberately set, but police said they had no hard evidence at this stage that arson was to blame. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday attributed the fires to "natural and unnatural" causes.
Television pictures showed a wall of flames raging through central neighborhoods of Haifa, a city of around 300,000 in the north of the country, including near a petrol station that firefighters were rapidly dousing with water.
"Almost 50 percent of the fires are apparently arson," Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan told Army Radio. Education Minister Naftali Bennett, the leader of a far-right party, suggested those who set them could not be Jewish.
The government received offers of help from Greece, Cyprus, Croatia, Turkey and Russia to fight the blazes billowing in multiple locations spread across nearly half the country. Aerial squadrons were dropping fire-retardant material to try to douse the heaviest fires and stem their spread.
A thick haze of smoke hung over Haifa, which rises up from the Mediterranean Sea overlooking a large port. Schools and universities were being evacuated, and two nearby prisons were preparing to transfer inmates to other jails, a prisons service spokesman said. Patients were moved from a geriatric hospital.
A lack of rain combined with very dry air and strong easterly winds have spread the fires this week across the center and north of the country, as well as parts of the West Bank. Scores of homes have been damaged or destroyed but no deaths or serious injuries have been reported.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said investigators had not yet been able to determine whether any of fires had been set deliberately. Four people detained on Wednesday on suspicion of causing a fire near Jerusalem were released for lack of evidence, he said.
Bennett, the leader of the Jewish Home party which supports settlements in the West Bank where Palestinians seek statehood, said on Twitter that arsonists were disloyal to Israel, and hinted that those who set the fires could not be Jewish.
"Only those to whom the country does not belong are capable of burning it," he said in a tweet in Hebrew.
Haifa's mayor said he was concerned for the city and its surrounding areas. "Each neighborhood is situated among forests and while we are proud of this, at the moment it is a problem," Yona Yahav told Israel's Channel 2. "There are some four major fire locations at the moment."
He called on residents with water sprinklers to turn them on to help keep the flames at bay. Those leaving their homes were urged to go to sports stadiums amongst other safer locations.
Highway 443, which links Jerusalem and Tel Aviv crossing through the West Bank, was temporarily closed to morning rush-hour traffic as flames reached the city of Modi'in, about half way between the two conurbations.
Local weather forecasters have said the tinder-dry conditions - it has not rained in parts of Israel for months - and strong winds are set to continue for several days and they see little prospect of normal seasonal precipitation arriving.
"Meteorology is not responsible but it is conducive to the spread of these fires," said Noah Wolfson, the chief executive of weather forecasting company Meteo-Tech. "The atmosphere will remain very dry, at least until Monday or Tuesday."
(Additional reporting by Steven Scheer in Modi'in and Luke Baker in Jerusalem; Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Mark Heinrich)