C'tee calls ministers to task on Carmel fire

Steinitz threatened with subpoena for failing to attend State Control meeting, Yishai, Aharonovich try to defend actions.

Carmel Fire 311 (R) (photo credit: REUTERS/Nir Elias)
Carmel Fire 311 (R)
(photo credit: REUTERS/Nir Elias)
Committee chairman MK Uri Ariel (National Union) slammed finance minister Yuval Steinitz on Tuesday for failing to attend a State Control Committee hearing regarding the state comptroller's Carmel fire probe.
Steinitz, whom the report said should take "special responsibility" for the December 2010 disaster, sent his apologies and asked his deputy to attend the hearing in his stead.
"We do not excuse anyone," Ariel said as the meeting opened, referring pointedly to Steinitz. "Everyone named in the report must attend. There is nothing to fear by coming here, we are not a court and God forbid we are not executioners."
Ariel noted that the committee has the power to issue injunctions to compel people to attend, and said he would use that power in future if necessary.
The chairman added that there will be a further meeting on August 7 and that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu - who was also invited to attend and who sent his apologies - will participate.
State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss's scathing probe into the Carmel Fire, published last month, said Interior Minister Eli Yishai as well as Steinitz should take "particular responsibility" for serious failures in the country's firefighting system.
The report slammed Steinitz for making desperately-needed funding for the firefighting service contingent on extensive, long-term reforms.
Meanwhile, Lindenstrauss said Yishai failed to take responsibility for the firefighting services' operational readiness in an emergency, even though he did press for more funding.
44 people lost their lives in the fire, the worst in Israeli history. Among them were 37 Prison 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 million of shekels. An estimated 1.5 million trees were destroyed.
Also present at Tuesday's meeting were incoming State Comptroller, Judge Joseph Shapira, Yishai, Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch (Yisrael Beytenu), Knesset speaker Reuven Rivlin.
Yishai appeared tense during the hearing, briefly holding his head in his hands as Ariel said the report revealed a "harsh reality of conflict within government ministries."
"Sometimes it appears as if [ministries] forgot about their responsibility vis-à-vis the public," Ariel said, adding that there had been "leadership blindness". "The disaster could have been avoided if someone had taken responsibility," he added.
Yishai admitted to the meeting that the "writing was on the wall" when he began his tenure as interior minister three years ago.
"I saw a fire fighting system that had serious deficiencies, because of the fact that funding had been made conditional on reform," Yishai said, referring to criticism in the report that Steinitz had predicated funding on extensive reform of the firefighting system. "I saw that this could be a problem, but I never predicted such a serious disaster," the interior minister added.
Public security minister Aharonovitch praised Lindenstrauss's office for what he said was a "very professional" report.
Aharonovitch said his ministry is dealing with the issues and suggestions raised in the report.
"I am responsible for the police and the prison service, and I have a parliamentary and ministerial responsibility, and recently the responsibility for the fire services was also transfered to me, after the Carmel Fire. I did not wait for the draft [comptroller's] report, from early on we sent investigatory teams out to the organizations [we are in charge of]," he said. The public security minister said that in the fire service there were large gaps in procurement, equipment, resources and training.