Sentences Handed Down to Five for 1997 Maccabiah Bridge Disaster

A Tel Aviv court sentenced four of five defendants to spend up to 21 months in jail for their role in a bridge collapse at the 1997 Maccabiah Games.

A fifth Israeli was given a sentence of community service.

The defendants had already been found guilty of negligence in connection with the collapse, which left four Australian athletes dead and scores of others injured.

“There has never been a case of such negligence at a mass public event, and the punishment must be a deterrent,” Tel Aviv Magistrates Court Judge Edna Beckenstein said when he handed down the sentences Monday.

But the father of one of the Australian athletes seriously injured in the collapse called the sentences a “disgrace.”

Colin Elterman, whose 18-year-old daughter, Sasha, has undergone more than 30 operations since the accident, called on Israelis to boycott the next Maccabiah Games to protest the sentences.

Four Australian athletes were killed and 70 others were injured when a temporary footbridge over the Yarkon River collapsed during the opening ceremonies of the Maccabiah Games in the summer of 1997, sending the delegates tumbling into the river’s polluted waters.

In its verdict, the three-judge panel found the bridge was built haphazardly, with no proper plan, foundation and supervision.

The greatest responsibility for the disaster was placed on Micha Bar-Ilan, the engineer who designed the bridge. The court sentenced him to 21 months in jail.

Baruch Karagula and Yehoshua Ben-Ezra, the subcontractors who built the bridge, were each sentenced to 15 three months in prison.

Adam Mishori, of the Irgunit company, which was responsible for the bridge’s construction, was sentenced to nine months in jail.

Yoram Eyal, the head of the organizing committee for the international games, was sentenced to six months of community service.

Frank Stein, the director of the Zionist Federation of Australia in Israel, said the deep pain and anger felt by the families of the bridge collapse victims is understandable, but added that the majority of the Jewish community in Australia believes the trial was fair.

“There is a great deal of faith and belief in the Israeli justice system and the fact that four of the five will be sitting in jail” could “bring to a close another chapter of this tragic story of the Maccabiah,” he said.

Despite the sentence, the legal portion of the tragedy has not been closed.

Many of the Australian athletes have filed lawsuits against the Games’ organizers, the Maccabi World Union and the builders of the bridge, demanding damages for injuries, mental anguish and loss of income.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said during a visit in April by his Australian counterpart, John Howard, that the Israeli government would provide one-third of any compensation paid out to the families.

Shinnui Knesset member Eliezer Sandberg, who heads a special parliamentary committee on the collapse, returned this week from Australia.

Sandberg said progress had been made on the compensation issue, but that it could take months before the matter is resolved.

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