Carmel fire hearing postponed until completion of probe

Top court disagrees with victims’ families that Yishai be fired.

By RON FRIEDMAN
May 5, 2011 04:29
3 minute read.
Fire rages in the Carmel, Thursday

Carmel fire 311. (photo credit: Israel Police)

 
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The High Court decided on Wednesday to postpone deliberation on petitions filed against the government for its alleged failures before and during the Mount Carmel forest fire, until the state comptroller completes his report, expected to be published in October.

The petitions, filed by government watchdogs the Movement for Quality Government and Ometz, as well as families of some of the 44 men and women who died in December 2’s fire, called for a series of state actions. These include the firing of Interior Minister Eli Yishai, forming and implementing a comprehensive plan to remedy the deficiencies in the Fire and Rescue Services, increasing firefighting budgets, establishing an airborne firefighting squad and launching a state commission of inquiry to investigate failures leading up to the blaze.

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In its response to the petition, the state said there were no grounds for the court to intervene in the government’s decisions, especially in light of the fact that the government was already taking measures to both investigate itself and to overcome the deficiencies identified in the wake of the fire.

The state argued that instead of establishing a new commission of inquiry, it was preferable to implement the recommendations of previous investigations, some of which were launched after previous large fires.

The state also dismissed the petitioners’ requests that Yishai be removed from his post because of his ministerial responsibility over the fire and rescue services, saying was not in the scope of the court’s authority to order such a move.

“It should be noted that the interior minister was aware and very active on the matter of the Fire Services and their lack of preparedness to fulfill the duties required of them, and was busy in promoting changes, including the establishment of a national firefighting authority and arranging budgets, as granted to him by the government, for providing immediate aid to the existing services, months before the Carmel fire occurred,” the state’s response read.

In Wednesday’s hearing the sides debated whether the fire warranted the court ordering the government to launch a state commission of inquiry. The law states that the government is entitled to establish such a commission when it deems an incident has vital public importance and requires investigating.

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Shmuel Shenhar, who represented the Movement for Quality Government, argued that while the court’s authority to intervene was limited, this was possible in unique cases, and that the Carmel fire warranted such intervention.

He said that even though in other instances, such as the Second Lebanon War, the court declined to intervene, in light of the government’s inaction since the fire, the court needed to step in.

“The [State Inquiry Commission] Law states that the cabinet is entitled to launch an inquiry commission, but the cabinet hasn’t debated the fire at all.

There was a decision by the Ministerial Committee [for Legislation], but it never went back to the government table. Later it was decided that the state comptroller would investigate, but the prime minister is wary of launching a commission of inquiry because of coalition considerations. If the state comptroller can investigate everything, who needs the law?” Shenhar asked.

Wednesday’s hearing also revealed that the State Comptrollers Report on the fire would only be published in October, and not, as initially announced, in June or July.

The justices ruled that the next hearing in the case would be held in November, following the publication of the State Comptrollers’ Report.

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