netanyahu - Reuters - January 6 2011
Relatives of the victims of last month’s Carmel Forest fire heckling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a memorial ceremony at Beit Oren, January 5, 2011. Photo by Reuters
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AP
Yishai, center, leaving yesterday’s ceremony for Carmel fire victims. Photo by AP

Relatives and friends of those killed in last month's Carmel fire disrupted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speech at yesterday's official memorial for the 44 victims and hounded Interior Minister Eli Yishai until he left the hall altogether.

The mourners let President Shimon Peres speak, but began heckling the premier and calling him a "liar" as he ascended the stage to deliver his eulogy.

Bodyguards briefly sheltered Netanyahu as a few dozen hecklers surged toward him. Other mourners stormed out of the event at Beit Oren, a kibbutz badly damaged by the fire.

Yishai left the ceremony after Danny Rosen, the partner of fallen Haifa Police Chief Ahuva Tomer, told Netanyahu he would leave if Yishai did not.

"My heart is with you; I know your pain," Netanyahu replied, seeking to calm the atmosphere. But relatives of other victims backed Rosen's demand, and eventually Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar came on stage and said Yishai had left.

Netanyahu was unable to begin his address for several minutes, and when he finally did start speaking, angry relatives continued to interrupt him, shouting that he was to blame for the fire.

Following the ceremony, the Prime Minister's Bureau said in a statement that it had been "important" for Netanyahu to address the bereaved families.

"He knows their pain and their loss, and all of this began with his desire to hold a state memorial ceremony," it said, adding that the premier would continue working to improve Israel's emergency services.

Yishai said afterward that he understood the mourners' anger stemmed from pain.

"The bereaved families' loss is unbearable," he said. "From their pain, they say what is in their heart. My heart is with them and may God comfort them."

Yishai's aides said he left so as not to further disrupt the ceremony. One later said the assault came from only two or three families, who "did him wrong on a live broadcast," and that several mourners later called to apologize on behalf of the others.

The families leading the struggle do not intend yesterday's uproar to be their last public protest, and are slated to meet in the coming days to plan their next moves.