Carmel forest fire report heads into more controversy

Carmel forest fire report heads into more controversy

Committee review rescheduled after families of blaze victims threaten to boycott meeting at Prime Minister's office because of media ban

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

A Knesset State Control Committee session to review the Carmel forest fire disaster report was rescheduled at the eleventh hour on Tuesday following threats by victims’ families to boycott the meeting because the press was barred from attending.

The special session of the Knesset State Control Committee, scheduled to take place on Tuesday at the Prime Minister’s Bureau and in the presence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, was originally closed to members of the victims’ families too. However, after protesting that the meeting should not be held behind closed doors, family members were granted access to the meeting but then demanded the press be present too.

Although as early as Tuesday morning the meeting was still slated to go ahead as planned, later in the day, following pressure from the families as well as statements from Knesset Speaker Rueven Rivlin and State Comptroller Joseph Shapira, the Prime Minister’s Bureau announced that the meeting will be rescheduled to its usual location at the Knesset.

“It is not clear why the standard rule that Knesset State Control Committee meetings are open to the press and the public was ever changed. That is the only way that the Knesset can monitor the activities of the executive authorities,” representatives of the victims’ families said in a statement.

“Recent events and media reports of suspicions of criminal activities during the disaster and afterwards demand that all the committee meetings be transparent and in particular to the media,” the statement continued. “We insist that every meeting, from beginning to end, be open to the media, otherwise we will walk out.”

The Knesset State Control Committee usually meets at the Knesset building and its sessions are open to the media and invited members of the public. The session to review the State Comptroller’s report into the Carmel fire disaster, in which 44 people lost their lives and thousands were forced to evacuate their homes, was moved to the Prime Minister’s Bureau due to Netanyahu’s hampered mobility following a leg injury incurred while playing soccer. Although the prime minister no longer has his leg in a cast, he is still said to be recovering from the injury and the meeting was relocated, putting it behind the tighter security at the bureau and beyond the watching eyes of the press and the public.

The report into the Carmel disaster, released in June this year, found “grave negligence” on the part of the finance and interior ministers that left the fire-fighting services woefully ill-equipped and unprepared to tackle the fire that blazed for three days and ravaged thousands of acres of forest.

In an interview to Army Radio, Rivlin said that while it was in the committee chairman’s authority to hold a meeting outside the Knesset building, committee meetings have to be open to the media and the public, with the only exception being for those that dealt with national security.

Shapira, who recently replaced Micha Lindenstrauss as state comptroller, said he would not attend the meeting at the Prime Minister’s office because it was inappropriate for the subject of an investigation to host a meeting on it.

The Prime Minister’s office responded said that all the victims’ families had been invited and that the prime minister was dedicating three hours to a lengthy debate on the issues.

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