Family members who lost relatives in the 2010 Carmel forest fire leveled harsh criticism at Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu during a stormy Knesset Control Committee meeting on Tuesday.
In an emotional speech, bereaved father Ze’ev Even-Chen, whose daughter Topaz Even-Chen Klein died in the fire, addressed the prime minister.
“Forty-four people died in the Carmel fire, not 44 cockroaches,” Even-Chen said.
“At first I thought I would talk about the State Comptroller’s Report, and how I have a great respect for it, but because of things that were said here today I actually want to start by talking about the fire disaster itself,” he said.
Even-Chen said that one of the families whose son, police Ch.-Supt.
Yitzhak Melina, died in the fire, had filed a complaint with the Justice Ministry’s Police Investigations Department against Northern District Police Commander Maj.-Gen. Roni Attia.
The complaint, filed on Monday, accuses Attia of causing death by negligence, abandoning his subordinates and obstruction of justice.
Even-Chen said that a private investigation uncovered prima facie evidence that had not been given to former state comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss – which merited a criminal investigation against Attia.
Lindenstrauss’s report listed several failures by Attia and said he should bear full responsibility for everything that happened in the area that was under his control.
Even-Chen also slammed the fact that Attia had been promoted in July 2011 to Northern District police commander.
“Roni Attia cannot remain northern police commander for a single minute more, Mr. Prime Minister,” he said, adding that Netanyahu had not yet called a cabinet meeting to discuss the State Comptroller’s Report.
Another bereaved father, David Dayan, said the police commanders whom Lindenstrauss deemed responsible for the deaths had so far failed to take responsibility.
Tuesday’s hearing was the second time the committee convened to discuss Lindenstrauss’s scathing report of the disaster, and the first time that Netanyahu was present.
In a previous hearing in July, the families accused Lindenstrauss of failing to give them proper answers regarding the series of blunders that led to their loved ones’ deaths.
Among the 44 people who died in the five-day Carmel fire, the worst in the state’s history, were 37 members of the Prisons Service, mostly cadets, who died along with their driver when their bus was engulfed by flames.
They were on their way to Damon Prison to evacuate its inmates. Three senior police officers, two firefighters and a 16-year-old volunteer firefighter also died.
The fire caused widespread damage to land and property, totalling millions of shekels. An estimated 1.5 million trees were destroyed.
Speaking of those who perished in the fire, the prime minister said that no criticism would bring back the victims.
“Each of the bereaved families is dealing with terrible grief, but all criticism should be directed at what is in our power to do,” Netanyahu said, adding that there was a fundamental difference between massive fires and other fires.
He said that it had been impossible to deal effectively with the Carmel fire because of Israel’s lack of fire fighting aircraft.
Netanyahu explained that fire fighting planes were the only way to deal with largescale fires such as the one that engulfed the Carmel.
“This was a unique and extreme event which required aerial fire fighting,” he said.
Netanyahu said that as soon as he realized the enormity of the fire, he acted immediately to bring over fire fighting aircraft from around the world. “I spoke with 30 heads of state and we brought 38 aircraft in two days. I even reached out as far as Australia because I had no idea how long the fire would burn.”
The prime minister stressed that even though there had been an additional NIS 10 million annual budget allocated to the fire fighting services, the issue of planes had not been raised.
Netanyahu also related an anecdote of a state dinner he once attended on a forested Greek island with late Greek premier Andreas Papandreou.
As the dinner began, a large forest fire broke out and Netanyahu asked Papandreou if they should abandon their repast. The Greek prime minister demurred, saying there was no need because fire fighting planes would put out the blaze.
Even-Chen said he disagreed with the prime minister in regard to the fire fighting aircraft.
“For five months you, the prime minister, have gotten your priorities wrong and you haven’t considered lifesaving systems,” he said.
“You are not just a politician, you are a leader. So what about [Interior Minister] Eli Yishai’s comments that he deserves a medal, and [Finance Minister] Yuval Steinitz’s comments that the State Comptroller’s Report deserves to be tossed in a garbage can? Is that acceptable to you? What does a garbage can have to do with 44 deaths?” Always expected to be stormy, Tuesday’s hearing began with a clash between Netanyahu and incoming State Comptroller Joseph Shapira, who announced he would not participate in the meeting if it was held in the Prime Minister’s Office rather than the Knesset.
While Control Committee meetings are always held in the Knesset and are in almost all cases open to reporters, the venue for Tuesday’s session was suddenly and unexpectedly shifted, among rumors that the session would be closed to the press.
Responding to the decision, Shapira announced in a single, brief paragraph that he refused to take part in the discussion.
“This follows the decision to hold the hearing in the Prime Minister’s Office rather than comply, as is the norm, with an open debate in Knesset,” Shapira said, noting it was improper to discuss the report in the offices of one of the people it had singled out for criticism.
Immediately after Shapira’s statement, Control Committee chairman MK Uri Ariel (National Union) said the meeting would take place in the Knesset after all, and that Shapira had agreed to take part.
Following the decision to move the meeting back to the Knesset, Netanyahu personally apologized to representatives of the bereaved families for the inconvenience, his spokesman Mark Regev said.
Speaking to Ariel, Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin said that in exceptional circumstances committee meetings could be held outside the Knesset, but these must still be open and transparent to the public via the media.
Only meetings relating to national security may be closed, Rivlin added.
Also in Tuesday’s hearing, Steinitz reiterated previous comments that his role was to maintain the budget and the country’s economic system.
Lindenstrauss’s report had singled out Steinitz and Yishai and said the two ministers must take “particular responsibility” for serious failures in the country’s fire fighting system.
Fire and Rescue Services commissioner Shahar Ayalon said those firefighters named in the comptroller’s report would not be promoted.
Haifa Mayor Yona Yahav said in the meeting that some of the failures that occurred during the fire were caused by faulty police and fire service norms, saying the two services had in recent years operated on the basis of a “friend brings a friend” referral program.
At the end of the meeting, Shapira pledged to monitor the report’s implementation, and to report to the committee after the Rosh Hashana holiday.
Following the meeting, Labor chairwoman Shelly Yechimovich gave a scathing response to Netanyahu’s speech.
“The prime minister’s obsessive preoccupation with aircraft was really a most embarrassing display – we have Netanyahu, one of those criticized in the State Comptroller’s Report – forcing bereaved families to hear for the umpteenth time about his famous dinner with Papandreou,” she said.
Yechimovich said Netanyahu should have listened to repeated warnings by firefighters who had told him before the Carmel fire that the fire service was not sufficiently equipped.
“It wasn’t a supertanker and airplanes from all around the world that could have prevented the catastrophe, but one small fire truck in Usfiya,” she added, referring to the Druse village on Mount Carmel that was affected by the blaze.