Carmel fire
A bus caught in the blaze on the Carmel, in December 2010. Photo by Dan Amir
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Shiran Granot
Interior Minister Eli Yishai Photo by Shiran Granot

State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss’s special report on the fire that raged for four days on Mt. Carmel in December 2010 assigns “special responsibility” to Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz, and asserts that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch bear compleye responsibility.

Lindenstrauss refrained from calling for the dismissal of Yishai and Steinitz in the wake of their inadequacies, as noted in the report.

“The State Comptroller’s Office does not consider it proper to express an opinion on what should follow from their responsibility toward the Knesset. That is a clear political question best left to the Knesset and the public," Lindenstrauss wrotein the report.

Nevertheless, the report indicates that certain factors“require us to make it fundamentally clear to the government echelons that it is their obligation to explain and account for the circumstances of that situation, and the ongoing neglect. At issue is a basic duty of the governmentechelons to provide the public with the degree of security to which it is entitled, and which it deserves.”

The factors, as stipulated in the report, include the extent of the government's failures and omissions as revealed in the incident, its lack of forward thinking, and the conclusion that it was so insufficiently prepared for an uncommon occurrence such as the Carmel fire to the degree that it essentially closed its eyes to the danger.

The state comptroller has also submitted the report to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein to examine the details it and give his opinion on the normative-legal and personal issues that it raises.

Yishai’s responsibility

Most of the criticism in the chapter on the responsibility attributed to government officials and ministersis leveled at Interior Minister Eli Yishai, since by virtue of his position he was in charge of the Israel Fire and Rescue Services.

Although Yishai took measures to solve some of the problems related to building up the fire department’s work force, the report states, the interior minister focused only on demanding hundreds of millions of shekels for the purpose of recruiting personnel and purchasing equipment. Lindenstrauss wrote that Yishai chose to adopt an all-or-nothing solution.

The report states further that Yishai did not keep abreast of other necessary aspects of the Fire and Rescue Services’s work, such as examining its overall operational fitness, upgrading its command and control capabilities and its readiness for uncommon occurrences, and holding trainings, drills and exercises for the firefighters.

In addition, Yishai was unwilling to consider the option of using Interior Ministry resources to fund at least some of the Fire and Rescue Services’s urgent requirements, the report states. Nor did he propose any plan by which the budgets of both the Interior Ministry and the Finance Ministry would share the funding.

The documents that the State Comptroller’s Office gathered show that although Yishai was aware that the Fire and Rescue Services suffered from a severe shortage of equipment, personnel and command and control methods, he did not examine the subject in any depth or take any interest in it.

Nor did he arrange any meetings during which the Interior Ministry’s director-general and the fire and rescue commissioner would report on the Fire and Rescue Services’s strategic outlook, the dangers for which it must prepare, the manner of its deployment and the extent of its readiness to cope with those dangers, particularly fires that might spread to the point of endangering human life and property.

Yishai acted similarly when it came to aerial firefighting. He never dealt with it, nor did he keep up to date on the Fire and Rescue Services’s preparedness for aerial firefighting at any moment that it might be required.

The state comptroller wrote that because the Fire and Rescue Services were part of Israel’s emergency services, whose purpose is to protect the public, Yishai should have asked to see a plan for integrating the Fire and Rescue Services into the national emergency system.

“Minister Yishai was aware of the limitations and the problems stemming from the fact that the Fire and Rescue Services are decentralized and operate without a central command and control headquarters. Precisely for that reason, the Fire and Rescue Services had an obligation to add command and control methods to the existing framework. Since the minister did not demand that any such methods be shown to him, he had no way to keep abreast of his ministry’s progress in dealing with the problem. He also did not use the full weight of his position or his status in the government to make crucial decisions about the unresolved disagreements among the lower echelons.”

Steinitz’s responsibility

According to the state comptroller’s report, Steinitz’s responsibility can be summed up in the fact that he made the allocation of budgets to the Fire and Rescue Servicesconditional on its implemention of far-reaching reforms.

The state comptroller rejected Steinitz’s claims to the investigative committee, made both verbally and in writing, that as finance minister, he was solely responsible for protecting the budgetary and financial framework from demands and pressures that came from all directions, justified though they might be.

“No one disagrees that protecting the national budgetary framework is essential and necessary for maintaining the state’s financial integrity and its ability to meet its goals,” the state comptroller wrote. Nevertheless, “When saving human lives from catastrophic events is at issue, a solution, even a partial one, must be provided, particularly when the allocation of resources to a reasonable extent and for defined needs could have improved the operational readiness of the entire service. An uncompromising defense of the comprehensive budgetary framework, justified though it may be, does not mean that one cannot find a solution within that very framework.”

Lindenstrauss also rejected Steinitz’s claim that a supplementary budget without reform would have been wasteful and disastrous because it would not have included making the service more efficient. This was because Steinitz and the Finance Ministry’s leadership should have understood that making a supplementary budget conditional upon reforms, as had been done for years, would endanger public security.

“Until the reform is completed, a reasonable solution must be provided, even if only temporarily, that will give the Fire and Rescue Services the necessary and vital resources that they require to deal properly with uncommon occurrences, particularly those that endanger human life on a massive scale,” the state comptroller wrote.

In May 2010, the Finance Ministry completely changed its position on making a supplementary budget for the Fire and Rescue Services conditional upon carrying out reforms. Steinitz acknowledged that an immediate budget was required for emergencies whether a reform was carried out or not. But this change in attitude came too late.

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu: Complete responsibility

 Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bears complete responsibility for the government's behaviore by virtue of his position and echelon.

"The claims and disagreements between the Interior Ministry and Finance Ministry accumulated on his table for a long time, and it was up to him to make a decision on the matter," wrote the comptroller.

But for a long time, Netanyahu avoided doing his part in sorting out the disagreements between Yishai and Steinitz, a delay that carried weighty significance when it came to the fire department's level of preparation when the blaze broke out .

Aharonovitch: Complete responsibility

Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch also bears complete responsibility for the agencies under his ministry’s supervision, the Israel Police and the Prisons Service. Significant failures and omissions were discovered among their operational echelons during the fire.

In the report’s conclusion, the state comptroller devotes particular attention to the significance of the responsibility that he places upon the ministers involved and upon the government as a whole.

“A basic attitude,” wrote Lindenstrauss, “is that responsibility is a forbidden thing that must be deflected from the ministerial echelon to a suitable scapegoat in hopes that he alone will be found guilty. Sometimes the scapegoat really is guilty [as he usually is made out to be], and this is what happened in certain places in the case before us. But the scapegoat’s guilt does not absolve his superiors of their duty to accept criticism. Of necessity, responsibility includes the duty of the ministerial echelon to ask to be shown, in an appropriate and complete manner, all major and significant dangers, and certainly the dangers inherent in mass disasters or times of national emergency so that they can study them deeply, analyze them and find solutions.... [Responsibility] rests first and foremost with the government and particularly with the senior ministerial echelon, which is directly responsible for preventing fires such as the horrific fire on Mount Carmel.... We can and even should see this incident as an example of the manner in which the State of Israel’s emergency services cope with any mass disaster that could occur in the future, Heaven forbid. The public expects the senior ministerial echelon to weigh the risks, set priorities and provide a reasonable solution, within the budgetary constraints that apply to every ministry, to the spectrum of dangers that threaten its welfare.”

State Comptroller: Yishai is evading responsibility

In the hearings that took place in the state comptroller’s office, and in the documents submitted by Yishai’s attorneys, Yaakov Borowski and Shuli Eshbol, Yishai denied the accusations against him and shifted responsibility to others for the failures that the committee discovered.

In a hearing before Lindenstrauss last November, Yishai admitted that in meetings with officials of the Rescue and Fire Services, “Nobody tells me about the details, the things on the professional level. I hear from the fire services officer, the ministry’s director-general, about their difficulties in general.... Now I am hearing things that I was never kept abreast of at all as a minister. The professional echelon must tell me what the problems are, what works and what doesn’t. The level of detail doesn’t matter – they need to share every bit.”

Later on, Yishai parceled out the responsibility to various groups.

At first, he blamed the government, specifically the Finance Ministry and the Firefighters Association.

“The Interior Ministry and its minister should not be blamed for the fact that reform measures in the Fire and Rescue Services were blocked by various government ministries, particularly the Finance Minstry, and other groups such as the Firefighters Association,” Yishai’s lawyers said.

Later, Yishai blamed the Fire and Rescue Services, for whose readiness he is solely responsible as well as the Public Security Ministry and the Israel Police, which were responsible for managing the events connected to the fire, and the command and control of the incident. Not content with that, he sought to shift the blame to the Environmental Protection Ministry and the Agriculture Ministry.

Mount Carmel National Park is under the aegis of the Jewish National Fund, which in turn is under the responsibility of the Agriculture Ministry and the Nature and Parks Authority. The latter is under the responsibility of the Environmental Protection Ministry. “These agencies are legally and organizationally responsible for the planning and maintenance of the forest,” Yishai’s attorneys said. “It is obvious that the Interior Ministry has no authority and, hence, no obligation or responsibility for these areas.”

The committee members rejected Yishai’s statements.

“The minister’s statements are an attempt to shift responsibility from himself to others – to the ministerial echelon or the command echelon. These statements are inappropriate. They seek to evade responsibility,” the report stated.

Yishai's response

Eli Yishai responded to the State Comptroller report on Wednesday, saying that the report proves that the disaster was inevitable, and was “not connected to the decisions leading up to it.”  

According to Yishai, Lindenstrauss’ report contains 26 “unprecedented paragraphs” which determined that an effort was made to rehabilitate Israel’s Fire and Rescue Services, and that the most important lesson to be learned is to draw conclusions in order to prevent a similar disaster in the future.

Yishai further stated that he would demand a governmental discussion to draw conclusions and set clear guidelines in all issues related to emergencies and life-saving.

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