Versailles Panel Won't Mean End to Shoddy Building Practices

Over two and a half years after the floor collapsed at the Versailles banquet hall in Jerusalem as people danced at a wedding, killing 23 people and injuring dozens others, the state commission of inquiry is due tomorrow to publish its findings.

The committee, headed by Judge Vardi Zeiler, was set up in June 2001 to explore building safety in Israel, to point to any problems in the industry and recommend necessary action. The panel began its work in November 2001 and has heard testimony from dozens of people, including municipal engineers, a host of experts, representatives of construction firms and inspectors.

The panel's recommendations have not been published yet, but sources in the building industry unanimously agree that widespread, thorough action is needed to bring about the necessary changes in the industry and improve the safety of the country's buildings. These same sources, however, doubt that the committee will actually be able to make any real changes to the sector.

"The culture of construction in Israel is flawed to its very foundations, and thorough, painstaking measures are needed to deal with these faults," one source said. The sources also believe that the biggest problem facing Israeli construction today is that it is not an organized and supervised industry. The problem begins in the planning and construction laws, continues with the flawed checks carried out before construction starts and ends with the defective construction work itself, the supervision of the building and the light punishments for those who break the law.

For example, the sources say that the labor courts slap light fines on contractors who break the law, which do not act as a deterance. Indictments are only ever filed, they say, in cases involving fatalities.

The head of the technical department in the contractors' union, Natan Hilo, suggests that in order to ensure that the Zeiler Committee's findings are implemented and to prevent the government ministries passing the buck from one to another, the Prime Minister's Office must be charged with the matter, and delegate responsibilities to the various ministries and offices.

He adds that the only way to ensure a real change in the industry is to increase supervision of those who break the law, including sanctions against local authorities who are often well aware of the planning and construction law, but, he says, only implement it when it suits them.

Sources in the construction industry point to the way the committee's August 2002 interim report on the Pal-Kal building method was received as proof of how little attention will be paid to the panel's recommendations. The report slammed the various ministries, particularly the Interior Ministry for not doing anything about the unsafe method of building ceilings.