Police Probe Into Carmel Fire Skips Key Issues

Report based on interviews with policemen in the field and recordings of police communications channels, but no commanders were interviewed, nor were conclusions drawn.

The state comptroller's report on last year's Carmel fire is due to be published soon, but the police concluded their own internal investigation months ago. That probe, however, completely ignored two of the most crucial issues: the functioning of individual police officers on the scene, and cooperation between the police and other agencies like the fire services, prison service and local authorities.

The report, whose main findings were presented in March to the families of the 44 people killed in the fire, was based on interviews with policemen in the field and recordings of police communications channels. But no commanders were interviewed, nor did the report draw any conclusions.

Isfiya fire station - Abdallah Shama - 02122011
Abdallah Shama

A police spokesman said the goal of the probe was merely to identify operational problems that needed to be solved. The police deliberately avoided questions of individual officers' responsibility for the various mishaps, "in the knowledge and on the understanding that the state comptroller was dealing with this issue," and out of a belief that this issue was better left to an outside body to avoid accusations of bias or whitewashing.

On the operational front, however, the police have not waited for the comptroller: A special task force was appointed to oversee implementation of the lessons derived from the internal probe as soon as it was completed, the spokesman said.

State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss has already distributed a draft of his report to all the relevant agencies, and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch on Thursday  called it a "harsh draft" that contained "severe" findings. But he defended the police force, saying it was a "good, professional" agency, and that the officers at the fire "were the best commanders we have."

"Let's not judge them," he urged, speaking to journalists at a ceremony at the University of Haifa at which memorial scrolls were handed out to the victims' families. "Let's wait for the comptroller, and then we'll judge."

Aharonovitch also pledged that a first draft of a bill to reform the fire services - which was supposed to have been passed into law by October, according to a cabinet decision - will finally be distributed to other government ministries for comment soon. His ministry's director general, Yaakov Ganot, rejected criticism of the delay, insisting that while "not everything is happening at exactly the pace we would like," progress had been made in hiring more firemen and purchasing new equipment.

One police officer liable to be hurt by the comptroller's findings is Maj. Gen. Roni Atiya, who received his new rank just this May, when he was appointed commander of the police's Northern District. Within the force, he is widely considered an outstanding officer who deserved his promotion. But the draft report accuses him of personal failures in handling the fire, and if this conclusion remains in the final version, his career is likely to suffer.

Atiya, then commander of the police's coastal region, arrived at the scene of the fire promptly and took charge of events during the first hours. The draft report therefore deems him responsible for a lack of coordination among the policemen present.

Police sources said Atiya's future may well depend on the victims' families. The comptroller has no legal authority to mandate his ouster, but if the families demand Atiya's head forcefully enough, the police brass are likely to capitulate.

One investigator involved in the internal police inquiry defended Atiya, however. "Atiya couldn't have grasped how the fire was developing, given the information he had," the investigator said.