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Setting forest fires is "ecological terrorism," Jewish National Fund chairman Efi Stenzler said yesterday, a day after a giant brush fire thought to have been started by arson devastated 3,500 dunams of forest land in the Beit Shemesh area. Thousands of animals, but no humans, were injured.

Police and firefighters said they suspected arson, but no arrests have been made.

Arson "constitutes terrorism that endangers life and property, and ecological terrorism that damages the air and oxygen we breath," said Stenzler. "We have to fight it with everything we've got: innovative technological devices, like installing cameras in forests, creating a JNF forest police and cooperating with the security forces."

Gilad Mastai, the JNF official responsible for the coastal plain region, said the fire was the largest in a decade and a half.

"It was the biggest fire we've had in the last 15 years and it was very difficult to put out," he said. "It will take a year at best just to clean up the enormous damage to the forest, and several years to restore it. This place was a wildlife habitat. We found burned tortoises, cows, jackals and lizards."

Some farmers said the firefighters were poorly equipped to deal with the raging flames, which destroyed farms, henhouses, plantations and fields, practically reaching the doors of some homes.

"Parrots and chickens were burned," said Doron Alali, who lives on Moshav Sdot Micha, which was affected by the fire. "It's not a matter of money. Fire trucks arrived with no water and no long pipes to put out the fire. It's miraculous that no lives were lost."