Netanyahu Heckled by Angry Mourners at Carmel Fire Memorial, Yishai Hounded Out

Following state ceremony honoring the 44 victims, both Prime Minister and Interior Minister say their hearts are with the bereaved families; aides to Yishai: He suffered injustice on life television.

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Relatives and friends of those killed in the devastating Carmel fire last month refused to let Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speak on Wednesday as he stood at the podium of the official state memorial ceremony to deliver a eulogy to the victims.

Those present at the ceremony mourning the 44 people killed in Israel's largest-ever wildfire let President Shimon Peres address the audience, but began heckling the premier and calling him a "liar" as he took his turn on the stage.

Relatives of Carmel fire heckle Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the state memorial ceremony on January 5, 2011Credit: Hagai Fried

Bodyguards briefly sheltered Netanyahu as a few dozen hecklers surged toward him and others stormed out of the event at Beit Oren, a kibbutz at the epicenter of last month's Carmel forest blaze in which the victims, mostly rescue personnel, died.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai left the memorial soon after Danny Rosen, the partner of fallen Haifa Police Chief Ahuva Tomer, stood and told Netanyahu that he would not remain at the ceremony unless Yishai stepped out.

In an attempt to calm the atmosphere as the chaos continued, Netanyahu told Rosen: "My heart is with you. I know your pain". But relatives of other victims joined Rosen's demand for Yishai to leave, and eventually Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar stepped on the stage and said that the interior minister had left.

Netanyahu was unable to begin his address for a number of minutes, and stood surrounded on all sides by tight security. Even after he finally began to speak, the angry relatives continued to interrupt him, shouting that he was to blame for the fire that took their loved ones' lives.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu being heckled by mourners at the Carmel fire memorial on January 5, 2011Credit: Channel 2

When he did get the chance to speak, Netanyahu told the mourners: "I know your pain and am aware of the great loss and hole that gapes in the lives of bereaved families."

Prior to that unexpected incident, Peres was able to deliver his own eulogy to the victims, telling the mourners: "Forty-four pure souls fell during the heavy offensive against this fire and we so wanted it to end differently."

"The fire that did not rest for a moment turned dozens of our families into bereaved, grieving, pained families," said Peres. "No tribute and no memorial ceremony will ever return to their loved ones."

"Today, as we conclude the 30 days of mourning, stands a shocked nation, one unprepared for such a tragedy. This is the truth, even if it is painful and stings. We were not prepared for the presence of such a big fire. We did not imagine it could happen."

Some relatives have demanded that the state investigate Netanyahu, Yishai, and Defense Minister Ehud Barak in particular over negligence during the fire, saying the discussion regarding their conduct does not belong in court but rather in the public domain.

Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein said however, that he did not believe that there was a legal basis that justifies a criminal investigation into the matter. Headded that the discussion regarding the failures to control the fire due to lacking resources could be dealt with in the Knesset, in a parliamentary inquiry committee or a governmental investigation committee, and not in a court of law.

Weinstein added that State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss was examining the various aspects of the disaster and if he found reason to suspect any criminal action in case, he would transfer the information to him for further examination.

The State Control Committee last month decided not to set up an investigation commission to probe deficiencies in the fire services during the massive blaze.

However, the committee's opposition members called for a re-vote at a later date and the committee unanimously issued a call to State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss to probe the events.

Such a commission would have been charged with dealing with the state comptroller's report released last week about problems with the fire services before the fire, rather than the deficiencies manifested during the Carmel disaster.

Following the ceremony, the Prime Minister's Bureau issued a statement explaining that it had been "important" to Netanyahu to address the bereaved families. "He knows their pain and their loss, and all of this began of his desire to hold a state memorial ceremony.

The Prime Minister's Bureau added that Netanyahu would continue to work determinedly to improve Israel's emergency services.

Yishai said in response to the incident that he understood that pain was the source of these mourners' anger.

"These 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.

Associates to the interior minister described the incident as an "injustice on live television."
"[Yishai] chose to leave the auditorium when he realized that should he remain, it would affect the ceremony," they added.



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