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June 20, 2012

Israeli leaders criticized over deadly 2010 Carmel forest fire

http://www.jewishjournal.com/israel/article/israeli_leaders_criticized_over_deadly_2010_carmel_forest_fire_20120620

Carmel forest fire of 2010.  Photo by Ori Gonen/Wikipedia

Carmel forest fire of 2010. Photo by Ori Gonen/Wikipedia

Israeli leaders were sharply criticized in a government watchdog’s report on Wednesday into emergency services’ lack of preparedness for a 2010 forest fire that killed 44 people, but there were no calls for dismissal.

The fire, the deadliest in Israel’s history, raced through the Carmel hills near the northern city of Haifa and blazed for more than three days before it was extinguished, largely with the help of foreign fire-fighting aircraft.

Most of the dead were prison guards who were sent to evacuate a jail in the area and whose bus was enveloped by flames on a forest road.

In his report, state auditor Micha Lindenstrauss accused Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and previous administrations of having “turned a blind eye” to the danger of national disasters by underfunding the fire brigade.

Lindenstrauss said only a minimal amount of fire retardant had been stockpiled nationally before the Carmel blaze and the number of firefighters and fire engines with long ladders per capita had been far below international levels.

He said Netanyahu, Interior Minister Eli Yishai, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Public Security Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch “bore responsibility for the shortcomings and failures exposed by the fire”.

Lindenstrauss singled out Yishai and Steinitz for “special responsibility” because the Interior Ministry oversaw the fire brigade, while the finance minister largely controlled its funding.

Netanyahu and the others, the report said, “had been aware of the sorry state of the fire brigade and emergency services”, but additional money had not been allocated in time.

The report had been highly anticipated in Israel, amid speculation that Yishai, a member of Shas, a key partner in Netanyahu’s governing coalition, could face calls to step down.

But refraining from recommending any action against government leaders, Lindenstrauss said the findings had been made available to Israel’s attorney-general, who could choose to examine whether any legal steps should be taken.

Responding to the report, a statement issued by Netanyahu’s office said that since the Carmel disaster, funding for fire services had been boosted significantly and a fire-fighting air squadron established.

Last week, a report by Lindenstrauss into a deadly Israeli raid on a Gaza-bound Turkish ship in 2010 criticized Netanyahu over what he said was the prime minister’s failure to hold “orderly” consultations with security officials and cabinet ministers before ordering the operation to go ahead.

Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Louise Ireland

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