My word: Scorched earth inquiries

By
December 18, 2010 22:44

The saddest aspect of party bickering is that politicians are ignoring poorly equipped and understaffed emergency rescue services.




Burned homes at Kibbutz Beit Oren

Burned homes 311. (photo credit: AP)

The press and public declared it a war. And as with all wars in which there was heavy loss of lives and property, once the flames of the devastating fire on the Carmel had died down, and the 43 dead had been buried, there came the calls for an official commission of inquiry.

The Carmel inferno of December 2010 was the Fire and Rescue Services’ equivalent of the Yom Kippur War of October 1973. The forces fought bravely and even won the battle, but they had been taken by surprise – unprepared and ill-equipped – and the result was devastating. The physical scars will be evident for years to come. Similarly, the wounds to the communal psyche. For fire is perhaps the most primeval of fears.

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“Who will live and who will die... who by fire; who by water?” we ask in the powerful Yom Kippur Unetaneh Tokef prayer, and as a severe storm hit the country just after the drought-fueled blaze was brought under control, the fears were not calmed.

The four-day fire was treated as a national emergency.

It brought out the best in people: Strangers opened their homes to “refugees”; youth movements armed with energy and social conscience quickly mobilized; animal welfare groups stepped in to help house and return pets. The Diaspora began emergency fund-raising. Even foreign firefighters raced to our rescue.

The language in the Hebrew press went far beyond “Firefighters battling the flames.” The sort of military terminology usually reserved for major campaigns prevailed. “The aircraft will win,” announced one typical banner headline in Yisrael Hayom.

“Don’t tell the Turks who came to help,” quipped a colleague, “they’ll go back if they know that we’re treating this as a war.”

“Sheket, yorim,” is a headlineturned- catchphrase coined by the late Amiram Nir during Lebanon I.

“Silence, we’re shooting,” summed up the feeling during the battle of the Carmel, too. Let the troops get on with their jobs before calling for an investigation.

But winning a war does not necessarily mean it is over.

Everybody knew that as soon as the emergency ended, there would be calls for heads to roll.

“Konenut, sfiga,” “Defensive alert,” stated Yediot Aharonot on December 8 above photos of Interior Minister Eli Yishai, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Defense Minister Ehud Barak, each of whom was on standby for the report by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss concerning the state of the country’s fire-fighting service – a report dealing with the failings of the fire and rescue services drawn up in the wake of Lebanon II.

Later, there were increasing calls for the head of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, made largely by those who had accused him of making political capital with his tour of the area during the disaster.

These same people would, of course, have blasted him for being apathetic and unfeeling had he stayed away. That’s politics and human nature.

Shas leader Eli Yishai also took a particular roasting, despite the fact that he had clearly warned that his ministry was not being granted the necessary funding to upgrade and maintain the Fire and Rescue Services that fall under its jurisdiction.

You might have thought that Netanyahu and Yishai had personally struck the matches that started the blaze.

Who can judge the families who lost loved ones in the flames? The need to blame someone, something, for an untimely death is probably as deeply rooted as the fear of fire itself.

Netanyahu as prime minister made an obvious target even though the serious inadequacies of the fire and rescue establishment had been pointed out in state comptroller report after report for decades, the conclusions each time mentioning old and outdated equipment which got older and more outdated from publication to publication.

And Yishai became a scapegoat because the head of the religious party, sometimes justifiably, is the default politician to blame at the moment. It’s become almost a matter of routine.

THE KNESSET last week delayed establishing an official commission of inquiry into the fire when Netanyahu instead asked Lindenstrauss to conduct an investigation into the events.

State Control Committee Chairman Yoel Hasson (Kadima) was particularly vocal in his calls for an official probe, and went as far as to suggest that Netanyahu had managed to stave off such an inquiry by offering funds to yeshivot, thus buying off the religious parties.

Kadima leader Tzipi Livni also continued to publicly seek Netanyahu’s resignation saying: “We are witnesses to a situation in which those responsible for the disaster are trying to prevent an investigation because, God forbid, such a committee will determine who is responsible.”

She, however, ignored the fact that the failings of the fire service during Lebanon II came during her party’s watch. Although she had called for then-prime minister Ehud Olmert’s resignation in 2007, and was more than willing to take over for him, it was not the conclusions of the Winograd Committee into the war that forced Olmert to step down but the mounting charges of corruption that he is still fighting.

Official inquiries are no guarantee that the buck will stop at the right person. The Agranat Committee into the Yom Kippur War infamously found chief of General Staff David Elazar responsible but did not rule on the personal responsibility of defense minister Moshe Dayan. It was possibly the public anger at the interim report as much as the war losses that forced Golda Meir to finally announce her government’s resignation.

Had Netanyahu appointed an official committee of inquiry, Hasson and Livni would likely have been leading the criticism about wasting funds and whitewashing.

The saddest aspect of the party bickering is that while concentrating on political lives, the politicians are ignoring the very real life-and-death situation posed by poorly equipped and understaffed emergency rescue services. This is particularly crucial in Israel, which has to deal with the ever-present problem of missile attacks, periodic wars and – substance for many worrying reports – the likelihood of a major earthquake.

Even last week’s storm damage, including the collapse of priceless archeological sites along the coast from Caesarea to Ashkelon, was a disaster just waiting to take place. Everybody knew what would happen and where; the only blank was the “when?” Inquiring minds deserve answers but in the case of the Carmel fire, it is not conclusions that are lacking but implementation of rectifying measures.

I do have one question I’d like answered, however: Which idiot was responsible for blocking the entry into the country of the Palestinian firefighters invited to attend a ceremony in their honor on December 14 to thank them for helping extinguish the blaze? It shouldn’t take a whole commission of inquiry, but if we can find out how that bureaucratic blunder occurred, we’d probably learn a lot that could help prevent future fiascos.

The writer is editor of 'The International Jerusalem Post.'

liat@jpost.com


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