‘Partners in pain,’ rivals in Carmel fire trial

Judges are forced to decide between two groups of bereaved families from Carmel tragedy over posthumous medals for police rescuers.

Bus in Carmel fire 311 (photo credit: Channel 10)
Bus in Carmel fire 311
(photo credit: Channel 10)
The three police officers killed in the Carmel forest fire will receive their posthumous medals of distinction in a ceremony later Wednesday – after the High Court ruled on Tuesday to reject a petition filed by family members of other state workers killed in the blaze to postpone the event.
Family members of Prisons Service employees, who also died in the fire, asked to postpone the awards ceremony until after the state comptroller completes the investigation into the events.
Families ask court to delay Carmel fire medals
In a case that Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch described as “one of the most difficult to ever come before the court,” the judges ruled that Police Commissioner Dudi Cohen’s decision to grant medals of distinction to Asst.- Cmdr. Ahuva Tomer, Asst.-Cmdr. Lior Boker and Ch.-Supt. Itzik Malina for bravery in the line of duty, was legal and within his authority.
“Our hearts go out to the petitioners who are crying out in pain because of the disaster they experience – as well as to the respondents [and] the families of the officers who perished,” wrote Beinisch.
The petition was filed Monday against the Police Commissioner and the Minister of Internal Security on behalf of the families of the 37 prison services workers who died after their bus was engulfed by flames.
It states that giving medals to the police officers – who may have been responsible for the death of their loved ones – was unbearable to the families, and that it was preferable to postpone the ceremony until after a full investigation of the fire, and the failures surrounding its handling, was completed.
“We are not against the officers and are not saying that they don’t deserve to be awarded,” said Ali Shakib, the petitioners’ lawyer. “We are only asking what is the harm of postponing the handing out of medals if doing so will gape a wound in the petitioners’ heart?” Shakib argued that the police commissioner’s decision to grant the medals was made prematurely and without sufficient knowledge about what actually took place on the scene.
He charged that both the internal police committee that recommended the granting of awards, and State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, said there was insufficient data on which to base the granting of a medal of distinction, and that it would be better to wait until the state comptroller completed the investigation.
“For now the facts are still burning,” said Shakib. “Things went wrong. Mistakes were made. Somebody instructed the bus to turn around. Someone was in charge of air support, which never came. These are all questions that need answering.
“The officers have already received honor and recognition for their acts.
What is the urgency to give them the medals? Handing them out and later realizing that it was a mistake, would also pain the officers’ families,” he continued.
In its response, the state said that Commissioner Cohen had the authority to grant the honors – despite of the internal committee’s recommendations to wait – and that he did so independently of any general failures that may have taken place.
As Beinisch later put it, “The commissioner decided to grant the awards based on the officer’s courage in the line of duty. There is no dispute that the officers paid the ultimate sacrifice in their deeds and remained in the line of fire to the very end in an effort to save the lives of others.”
“The commissioner reckons that even if the investigation reveals that the officers acted mistakenly, it has nothing to do with their courage, which is not in doubt,” said State Attorney Uri Keidar.
Last to argue were the families of the officers themselves. Alon Gavizon, representing Karmit Malina, whose husband died in the fire, said that the three’s courage was only made more apparent in light of the possible failures that took place. He stressed that the awards were being granted to the three officers who died, and not to the police as an organization.
“The awards are being granted to the people who could have remained in the office – or left – when they saw they were in danger, but instead chose to stay behind in an effort to save the lives of others,” said Gavizon.
“The medals will not return our loved ones to us, but our sole comfort in the daily pains we suffer at their loss is in the knowledge that they died heroically,” said Nava Boker the widow of Asst.-Cmdr. Lior Boker. “I am pained that the people whose relatives they tried to save in their deaths are now trying to prevent them from receiving their due honors.”
Not wishing to have to choose between the two groups of bereaved families, the three-judge panel of justices – including Beinisch, Edna Arbel and Uzi Vogelman – took great efforts to avoid making a ruling on the matter.
As Justice Arbel said, it was a verdict that none of them wanted to reach after hearing both sides’ arguments. Indeed, they strongly urged the petitioners to drop the petition on their own accord, and announced a short break giving the petitioners time to discuss amongst themselves whether they were seeking redress from the wrong source.
However, after returning from a short recess, the prison services families came back and insisted on a verdict – arguing that handing out the medals as planned would inflict great harm onto the petitioners.
In their decision to reject the petition, the judges withheld judgment on the question of whether the police commissioner should have waited for the completion of the investigation, before deciding to grant medals. Instead, they focused solely on the legal question of whether or not it was in his authority to do so.
The judges wrote that the commissioner had hierarchical authority to make the decision – even if he was recommended not to.
“The commissioner saw importance in bequeathing the values of courage and sacrifice to his forces, and we think it is not our place to intervene on his judgment when he acted in accordance with the law,” wrote Beinisch.
“We can only hope that the facts involved in the tragedy will be investigated and that all the families of the victims – to whom the gratitude and appreciation of the entire Israeli public is granted – will find answers to the lingering questions,” concluded Beinisch in her verdict.
Following the trial, Danny Rozen, whose partner Asst.-Cmdr. Ahuva Tomer died in the fire, said that all the parties experienced shared suffering.
“There aren’t two sides to this case. We are all partners in pain,” said Rozen.