People run away from a wildfire burning in Haifa, Israel, on Nov. 24. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

This story has been updated.

— The wildfires that swept across Israel and the West Bank last month were the worst in a decade, a torch lit in a tinderbox.

The scary conflagrations caused millions of dollars in damage, destroyed hundreds of homes and sent tens of thousands of people fleeing in panic through the black smoke.

As fierce winds ripped across the rainless land, Israeli leaders took to social media and stood before television cameras to condemn what they called a new campaign of “pyro-terrorism.”

Israeli settlers grieve over their burned houses in the Halamish settlement, also known as Neveh Tzuf, northwest of Ramallah, on Nov. 27. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

Palestinian terrorists, they said, were burning out the Jews.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his cabinet members charged that Arab Israelis and Palestinians were setting the fires — and then dancing in celebration.

But in the weeks since then, only a handful of Palestinians have been arrested. Arab Israeli leaders say Netanyahu and others are guilty of incitement: Instead of bringing the nation together, they sought scapegoats.

On Twitter, hashtags such as “Israel is burning” and “Tel Aviv is burning” appeared. From Kuwait’s Grand Mosque, Sheikh Mishary al-Afasy Rashid posted, “All the best to the fire.”

Israel’s domestic security service, Shin Bet, and the police asserted that half the 40 major fires, and hundreds of smaller burns, were started intentionally.

But after the finger-pointing, only six Arab Israeli youths have been indicted, for setting what authorities describe as minor fires in northern Israel, according to national police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld. Those blazes caused little damage.

No arson indictments have been brought against perpetrators of the major fires that caused widespread damage in Israel’s third-largest city, Haifa, and the forests around Jerusalem.

On Sunday, Israel’s internal security agency said it had arrested three Palestinians from the West Bank who had admitted to starting fires for nationalistic reasons during that week, mainly near Jewish settlements. Arson charges will be brought against them in the coming days.

Israeli officials who condemned the fires as terrorism defend their statements. They say it is not hard to prove arson, though it is much more difficult to find the perpetrators.

According to police figures, out of roughly 2,000 suspicious fires each year in Israel, authorities routinely prosecute only about 5 percent of cases.

In Haifa, where three huge blazes roared through forested suburbs, destroying 100 homes and damaging 800 more, local authorities sought to dampen claims that their Muslim neighbors intentionally set the fires.

“No one dares to point a finger at the local Palestinians here,” said the city’s mayor, Yona Yahav.

Yahav boasted that his is a city of peaceful relations. The mayor said Christians, Jews and Muslims all condemned the fires and all offered their homes to evacuees. That is the real story, he said.

Yahav said it would not matter much if an arsonist or two were discovered. His point was that the people of Haifa collectively condemned the fires — and fought the blazes together.

He said the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank sent teams of firefighters to Israel to help battle the blazes.

“That’s the message,” the mayor said. “Not what the others are saying.”

But his own city engineer, Ariel Waterman, said the location of the fires pointed toward arson.

During the fires, Netanyahu spokesman Ofir Gendelman tweeted: “Arabs & Palestinians on social media rejoice over the wildfires that have erupted across Israel. Despicable fanatic hatred.”

Israeli Culture Minister Miri Regev said, “Anyone who has eyes and a brain can see that the fires in many places in Israel are not natural.”

Education Minister Naftali Bennett tweeted, “Only someone to whom the land doesn’t belong could be able to burn it.”

In Haifa, a Muslim cleric, ­Rashad Abu Al Hija, said, “When I heard that they were saying it was Muslims, it hurt me very much.”

The imam said: “Even the mayor said it couldn’t be Arabs. I said if even one of us is found to have done this, they should be punished to the fullest extent of the law.”

A large and deadly fire on the outskirts of Haifa in 2010 was later found to have been started by a group of Druze youths who did not extinguish a tobacco pipe properly. That blaze became a national tragedy when it claimed 44 lives, mostly prison guards sent to evacuate a nearby facility.

Rosenfeld, the police spokesman, said 39 people had been detained for arson and incitement in the recent fires, most of them Arabs with Israeli citizenship. He said 23 people are still being held, including some under house arrest.

In addition to the six youths indicted on a charge of arson, two Arab Israelis have been charged for incitement on the Internet, Rosenfeld said.

In the turmoil, Israeli police clearly overreached. One Arab Israeli who was arrested for incitement after a Facebook post was released after proving that his comments were sarcastic condemnation. He had been denouncing those calling for Israel to burn.

Arab Israeli leaders criticized Netanyahu and his ministers for incitement during a national emergency.

“Everyone knows that there wasn’t a wave of terrorism, there was no ‘fire intifada,’ ” said ­Ayman Odeh, an Arab Israeli member of the parliament.

Odeh and his Arab Israeli allies in the parliament have threatened to sue Netanyahu for incitement.

“Some Palestinians lit fires and celebrated in the streets,” Netanyahu said as the conflagration threatened Haifa. “Others are helping extinguish the flames.”

Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman said the best response to alleged Palestinian arson was to expand the Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan called for the demolition of the family homes of any Palestinians found guilty of arson and said the cases of alleged arson were “a new kind of terror.”

In an interview with The Washington Post, Erdan said: “It is ridiculous to judge these attacks by the number of people who we have proof that they did it. I can’t share with you all the information I have, but experts from the Fire Authority and the police say 50 percent of the fires were arson. This is what they saw on the ground, they found molotov cocktails.”

Erdan said Israeli military drones captured images of Palestinians throwing firebombs over Israel’s security wall. He also said incitement stoked the flames.

“Maybe the first fire was not started deliberately, but some people realized that they had an opportunity. After we told the public to be careful because of climate and the speed of wind, some people realized they had an opportunity,” Erdan said.

Michael Horowitz, director of intelligence for Prime Source, an Israeli-based geopolitical consultancy, said the fires had been blown out of proportion.

“If you look at the map of fires across the region, it was not only in Israel. It was a trend linked to the weather,” Horowitz said. “This situation also affected Palestinian villages, and we saw the Palestinians sending firefighters.”

He said that if some of the fires were started intentionally, it was most likely a “self-fulfilling prophecy” inspired by the media and by politicians.

“There needs to be due process, and the politicians need to let the police do their work,” Horowitz said, to find those who set the dry forests alight.

Eglash reported from Jerusalem.