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The first foreign firefighting planes today started helping Israel tackle a vicious wave of wildfires which have forced tens of thousands to flee their homes. Faced for the past four days with fires across the country fed by drought and high winds, Israel has been promised airborne assistance by Russia, France, Turkey, Cyprus, Greece, Italy and Croatia. On the ground, Palestinian firefighters yesterday night joined the Israelis, sending four fire engines to the northern city of Haifa and four more to the village of Beit Meir, near Jerusalem. In the cooperative village of religious Jews, where about 400 residents were evacuated from their homes, Israeli and Palestinian crews fought side by side against the flames. The fires appeared to be easing somewhat today, despite the persistent wind, although authorities warned that they could flare up again at any time. "Things can change and develop as we speak," police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld told AFP. Many Haifa residents spent the night away from home after tens of thousands were evacuated yesterday from the path of towering flames which threatened apartment blocks, kindergartens and entire neighbourhoods. Police gave them permission to return home today afternoon. The Haifa fires were "under control" today, Rosenfeld said, although large numbers of police, firefighters and rescue workers were still on the streets of the worst affected neighbourhoods to monitor and respond to possible new outbreaks, an AFP journalist said. Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon said some of the foreign planes were in action today. "We are deeply grateful to the international community," he said. "Its mobilisation proves that in times of crisis we can count on many friends in this region and beyond." The rising number of fires since Tuesday has stretched Israel's capacity to deal with them, raising questions over lessons learned since a devastating blaze near Haifa killed 44 people in 2010. The growing wave, with sometimes dozens of outbreaks a day reported up and down the country, has heated up Jewish Israelis' suspicions of the state's Arab minority and the Palestinians. Arab Israelis make up about 17.5 percent of the country's population. Descendants of Palestinians who remained on their land after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948, they largely identify themselves as Palestinians.
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