Carmel Fire Families Demand Answers in Stormy Meeting

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The venue of Tuesday’s contentious meeting about the state controller’s report on the 2010 Carmel Fire was changed, after new State Comptroller Joseph Shapira threatened not to attend.

The State Control Committee met in the Knesset instead of in the Prime Minister’s Office, as originally planned, because Shapira told committee chairman, MK Uri Ariel (National Union), that it was not appropriate to discuss the report in the office of one of the people who’d been criticized in it.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had wanted the debate to take place in his bureau, without journalists present. But Ariel agreed to move it to the Knesset, which meant media coverage was permitted.

Relatives of the 44 people killed in the disaster, most of them on the ill-fated bus carrying Prisons Service cadets to a prison evacuation, expressed outrage that no one cited in the report as bearing responsibility has been held accountable.

Ze’ev Even-Chen, whose daughter Topaz died on the bus, attacked Netanyahu for not convening the cabinet to discuss the report in the nearly two months since it was released by former State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss.

“Forty-four people were killed, not 44 cockroaches,” said Even-Chen. “It was an event that you, the prime minister, called one of the worst disasters that the State of Israel had ever known. And you didn’t find it proper to discuss the issue?”

Even-Chen also expressed anger at Netanyahu for not calling to order Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Interior Minister Eli Yishai for remarks they made after the release of the report, in which both were criticized. Yishai had said he “deserves a medal of honor” for fighting on behalf of the fire service. Steinitz said the report belonged in the garbage.

Danny Dayan, whose son was killed, complained that the report didn’t relate substantively to the events on the bus.

“The only ones blamed were those in uniform,” said Dayan. “Such a failure [of the political echelons] wouldn’t even occur in a Third World country. If they had at least said, ‘we erred, we made a mistake,’ then maybe. But nobody has accepted responsibility.”

The relatives demanded that Police Commissioner Yohanan Danino and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch immediately suspend Maj. Gen. Roni Atiya, who commanded the police coastal region during the fire and who was also harshly criticized by Lindenstrauss. Despite his alleged mishandling of the fire, Atiya was named Northern District commander last year.

Before the parents spoke, Netanyahu compared the Carmel fire to major fires elsewhere that didn’t generate investigations.

“We’re talking here about an incident that is very extreme and exceptional in the State of Israel, but not elsewhere in the world,” Netanyahu said. “There are huge fires in California, Siberia, Canada, and Greece. They have all the resources and fires still get out of control, and there are no investigative committees.”

Netanyahu added that without firefighting planes it’s impossible to put out huge fires. “If you don’t have planes, you can’t physically get into the forests. This basic perception was missing in the State of Israel’s firefighting apparatus.”

But the parents cut Netanyahu off, saying the families weren’t interested in the larger picture. “We want to know what happened in the bus disaster,” one father yelled.

A mother called out, “I owe my children an answer to the question, who was responsible for the bus disaster. Nothing else is important to me.”

Many parents are demanding an inquiry into how their loved ones perished. Others want their pound of flesh from the relevant ministers.

“I’ve lost faith in politicians,” said Even-Chen, adding that the families have petitioned the High Court of Justice to ask the state to explain why neither Steinitz nor Yishai were dismissed after Lindenstrauss’ scathing criticism.

“The prime minister has no advantage over us before the High Court,” Even-Chen said. “You can do anything in politics, but in the High Court of Justice we contend at equal strength.”

Netanyahu: There are fires in California and there are no investigative committees.Credit: Emil Salman
Angry Carmel fire family members interrupting the prime minister.Credit: Emil Salman

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