Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz should take
“particular responsibility” for serious failures in the country’s firefighting
system, according to a long-awaited state comptroller’s probe into the December
2-5, 2010, Carmel Forest fire published on Wednesday.
The document slams
Steinitz for making desperately needed funding for the Fire and Rescue Services
contingent on extensive, long-term reforms.
Meanwhile, Yishai failed to
take responsibility for the firefighting service’s operational readiness in an
emergency, even though he did press for more funding, the report
Forty-four people lost their lives in the fire, the worst in the
Among them were 37 Prisons Service cadets and their
commanding officers, who died along with their driver when their bus was
engulfed by flames.
They were on the way to Damon Prison to evacuate its
prisoners. Three senior police officers, two firefighters and a 16-year-old
volunteer firefighter also died.
The fire caused widespread damage to
land and property, totaling millions of shekels. An estimated 1.5 million trees
were destroyed and more than 5,000 hectares (12,000 acres) of land was
The nation’s firefighting infrastructure lags behind that of
other countries, and Israel has, proportionally, only one-quarter the firemen
and fire trucks as other Western countries, the report revealed. Additionally,
the country has only a fraction of the fire retardants that it is required to
In October 2009, 14 months before the fire, the Fire and Rescue
Services commissioner said he was short 200 firefighters due to lack of funds.
The firefighting service was also short 130 fire engines, while those vehicles
in service were never updated and modernized as they should have
Moreover, the service did not have a centralized computer
In December 2009, a year before the fire, the firefighters’
committee chairman informed the prime minister that the firefighting service was
“in a state of collapse,” adding that “firefighters in the field need to decide
who gets to live and who dies.”
Lindenstrauss emphasized that the report
was not advocating placing the guilt for the deaths of the 44 people in the fire
on any one person, and said emergency service officials acted “courageously,
resolutely and had been ready to lay their lives on the line” during the
The report says, however, that Yishai and Steinitz had not done all
they could to deal with these matters, even though both men had been aware the
fire service was not equipped to cope with a major blaze.
said that the central issue in the report was that of
“[The fire] was not an unexpected event,” he
The state comptroller said that in the light of this serious
situation, which had been apparent to the prime minister, finance minister,
interior minister, public security minister and entire government, the Treasury
ought to have provided the funds for upgrading and developing the fire service
as a matter of urgent priority, without any regard for long-term
The report said Yishai and Steinitz took “all or nothing”
approaches, with Steinitz sticking to his “reform first” stance and Yishai to
his demands for hundreds of millions of shekels for a longterm plan. Both
ignored the urgent need to upgrade the firefighting service, the document
With regard to Steinitz, Lindenstrauss noted that in his response
to the draft version of the report in March, the finance minister said his role
was different from that of other government ministers, because he was
responsible for keeping within the budgetary framework – even when faced with
justified demands for additional money.
Steinitz had said that the
firefighting reforms were the responsibility of the Interior Ministry, and
criticized Yishai for failing to ask for any of the budget to be allocated for
emergency upgrades to the firefighting service, the report
Lindenstrauss said that in the the light of the “very real danger
posed to human life, property and the environment by natural disasters as well
as emergencies,” Steinitz should have allocated the firefighting service the
resources necessary to allow it to deal with emergencies even ahead of
“When it comes to saving human lives from catastrophic events,
the finance minister must meet these needs, even partially, especially where a
reasonable allocation of resources might have improved the operational readiness
of the entire system,” Lindenstrauss said.
Instead, the minister allowed
the firefighting service to deteriorate, the state comptroller
Lindenstrauss also criticized both ministers for failing to work
As a senior member of the government, Steinitz was aware that
firefighting is one of the components of the emergency services, and it was his
responsibility to cooperate with the interior minister to find ways to solve the
problem, the report said.
Lindenstrauss said his office had not found any
documents showing that Steinitz initiated any working meeting with Yishai to
advance the matter or that he had instructed his subordinates to undertake staff
The state comptroller said that while Steinitz had voiced serious
concerns about Yishai’s conduct and about the Interior Ministry, including that
Yishai had not filed a proper budget request, the documents Steinitz handed over
for the audit did not reflect those claims, and that there had been no record
that Steinitz ever contacted Yishai or his office about the
Meanwhile, the state comptroller said Yishai had been unaware of
the firefighting service’s exact requirements, and slammed him for passing the
blame on to his subordinates.
The state comptroller said this attitude
was “difficult to accept,” adding that as the minister in charge, Yishai was
responsible for organizing matters in his own office.
that an analysis of Yishai’s actions in the run-up to the fire showed he had
taken actions to address some of the fire service’s problems, but had failed to
act to address the immediate, urgent issues.
For example, in September
2009, Yishai warned Netanyahu, Defense Minister Ehud Barak, Steinitz and
then-deputy defense minister Matan Vilna’i of the critical state of the
firefighting service, Lindenstrauss said, and told them there was a budget
shortfall of around NIS 400 million needed to cope with emergency
However, instead of addressing the immediate, urgent need to
rebuild the firefighting service and increase its operational capabilities,
Yishai advocated a long-term plan that depended on the government allocating a
And though Yishai was aware of a shortage in firefighting
equipment, manpower and command-andcontrol measures, the interior minister did
not delve deeply into these issues by asking his staff to present him with a
plan of action.
Yishai should have requested internal funding to finance
even part of the fire service’s immediate emergency budgetary needs, or a joint
funding program between his ministry’s budget and that of the Treasury, the
Lindenstrauss said that even though Yishai had opposed
getting rid of firefighting helicopters in his previous term as interior
minister, in his current term he had not acted to ensure that aerial
firefighting service was fit for purpose.
Regarding the state of the Fire
and Rescue Services and its preparedness for a major emergency, the state
comptroller said he had recommended in previous reports that, until a
comprehensive solution to the fire service’s organizational structure was found,
the Interior Ministry should set up an interim solution for emergency
Immediately after the report was published, Steinitz and
Yishai moved to reject its criticisms.
The Treasury issued a two-line
“The conclusions regarding the Treasury are bizarre and
unfounded to the extreme,” it said. “The report threatens the Israeli economy’s
stability, due to the fact that it makes upholding the budget law
In closed conversations on Wednesday, Steinitz said he did
not understand why he was included in the report at all. He said no finance
minister around the world is seen as responsible for the fire
Meanwhile, Yishai said in response: “My heart goes out to the
bereaved families on this difficult and painful day.
The report proves
that ministers’ demands on life-saving issues must be taken seriously,” he
“What is most important now is to learn lessons that will prevent a
similar disaster in the future. I intend to request a discussion in the cabinet
to ensure the lessons of the report are learned and new rules are set for
dealing with life-saving issues.”
Yishai also moved to play up the
positive aspects of the report, noting that the comptroller wrote that under his
leadership, the Interior Ministry made an unprecedented effort to rehabilitate
the firefighting service, quoting from the report that “Yishai succeeded where
others did not succeed.”
While Steinitz and Yishai bear the brunt of much
of the criticism, the state comptroller said Netanyahu and Public Security
Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch must also take “general
Aharonovitch’s ministerial responsibility includes the
police and the Prisons Service, both of which made serious errors during the
fire, the report said.
Netanyahu must take overall responsibility for the
government’s actions, the report said, noting that the prime minister failed to
use his full authority to resolve the longterm dispute between the Interior
Ministry and the Treasury.
In response to the report, Aharonovitch called
the Carmel Forest fire a “national tragedy” and said the bereaved families were
suffering “indescribable pain.”
He said his ministry had already begun to
implement the lessons learned from the draft report published earlier this year,
in order to be “better prepared for the next such event.”
recommended that the emergency services operate under a single professional
umbrella that could provide the required level of operational
The Prime Minister’s Office said in response to the report
that Netanyahu was studying the state comptroller’s findings, and emphasized
that some of the defects highlighted in the report had been fixed immediately
after the Carmel fire.
“A firefighting squadron has been formed that
since last year has extinguished over 100 fires, including the huge fire in
Jerusalem [near Yad Vashem in July 2011],” the Prime Minister’s Office
“The firefighting service has been transferred from the Interior
Ministry to the Public Security Ministry, and hundreds of millions of shekels
have been allocated to open eight fire stations, to recruit 300 firefighters and
purchase 89 fire engines.”
Emphasizing the positive aspects of the
report, the Prime Minister’s Office noted that Lindenstrauss had mentioned
Netanyahu’s response during the fire and his personal involvement to obtain
firefighting assistance from abroad, through his contacts with leaders of other
The prime minister had helped bring 38 firefighting aircraft
and helicopters from 12 countries, the Prime Minister’s Office said.
would have been impossible to deal with the fire successfully without this
aerial firefighting equipment from abroad,” the Prime Minister’s Office
Emphasizing the need for accountability, Lindenstrauss said the
relevant government ministers and officials must take responsibility for these
Although the report found the police, firefighters, and Prisons
Service had all made mistakes, the state comptroller said that current and past
governments must also share responsibility for omissions and failures that led
to the disaster.
However, Lindenstrauss said that when the present
administration came to power, the “writing was already on the wall” regarding
the pitiful state of the fire service.
Lindenstrauss called on government
ministries to examine the report and then decide whether they should take
disciplinary action against those responsible for the failures.
rests on each and every member of the government to explain to the public what
he intends to do to prevent further disasters,” he added.
learning and implementing the lessons learned from the tragedy would be “cold
comfort,” Lindenstrauss quoted an Arabic proverb, saying the result should not
be that “the dogs bark and the caravan moves on.”
The state comptroller
said the public should remain vigilant and insist that the government show
accountability by implementing all the report’s findings.
“The great test
of leadership is to see the reality in front of one and to determine a correct
and appropriate course of action in real time,” Lindenstrauss added.
team of 30 auditors from the State Comptroller’s Office worked on the 506-page
document, which includes interviews with the police, the Prisons Service, the
Interior Ministry and the Firefighting Commission. The auditors also met with
families of the victims.
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