Israeli rescue workers carry a wounded passenger at the scene of a bus crash near the southern Israeli resort city of Eilat yesterday. At least 26 people were killed and dozens of others seriously injured when a bus of Russian tourists overturned yesterday near the popular Israeli Red Sea resort town of Eilat, rescue services said. (Yehuda Ben Itah/Associated Press)

This year has marked the first year in Israel’s history when no visas were required of tourists who wanted to visit the Jewish state from Russia.

As a result, at least 300,000 Russian tourists have flown into the southern Israeli port city of Eilat over the past year, making Eilat one of the greatest attractions in the world for Russian tourists.

In that context, travel agents from throughout Russia gathered this week in Eilat to convene a conference, in cooperation with the Israel Ministry of Tourism. The conference aimed to plan vacation packages for Russian- speaking tourists who want to visit southern Israel.

On Monday afternoon, 49 Russian-speaking travel agents and tour operators landed at the Ovda airport just north of Eilat. These tourists flew to Israel on a charter flight operated by the Russia company from St. Petersburg, landed in Ovda and departed in two buses in the direction of Eilat.

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Around about 3 p.m. local time yesterday, one of those buses plunged down a ravine about two miles north of Eilat.

Twenty-six of the Russian bus passengers were killed instantly, and the injured were evacuated to the Yoseftal, Barzilai and Soroka hospitals in southern Israel.

Thirty-three more passengers were injured, 25 of them seriously.

Tourism Minister Ruhama Avraham-Balila, immediately on hearing the news, instructed representatives from the Tourism Ministry to open a “situation room.” A Russian-speaking representative from the Tourism Ministry has answered tens of calls from families seeking information.

The situation room operated in full cooperation with the Foreign Ministry and with the Russian Ambassador to Israel and the Israel Embassy in Moscow.

The Israeli government released the following statement:

“Israel deals with road accidents on a daily basis and, to our sorrow, no week goes by without Israelis and tourists, pedestrians, drivers and passengers, being killed and injured. The number of those killed and injured is high and scarcely conceivable. Even in the shadow of this sad chronicle, today’s accident is exceptional in its severity. It obligates us, especially during the week in which we mark the issue of road safety, to reconsider the culture of driving in Israel, mutual responsibility on the roads and the need to specially train drivers who transport large numbers of people.”

The Israel Ministry of Transportation said a verbal argument between the two bus drivers concerning the “right of way” caused the crash. The driver of the fatal bus, who was only slightly injured in the crash, has been convicted of 22 moving violations. Why he was still a driver on the road will be the subject of debate in the days to come.

Twenty-four fatalities in one crash is the highest figure in Israeli motor vehicle accident history.

David Bedein can be reached at dbedein@israelbehindthenews.com.

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David Bedein is an MSW community organizer and an investigative journalist.   In 1987, Bedein established the Israel Resource News Agency at Beit Agron to accompany foreign journalists in their coverage of Israel, to balance the media lobbies established by the PLO and their allies.   Mr. Bedein has reported for news outlets such as CNN Radio, Makor Rishon, Philadelphia Inquirer, Los Angeles Times, BBC and The Jerusalem Post, For four years, Mr. Bedein acted as the Middle East correspondent for The Philadelphia Bulletin, writing 1,062 articles until the newspaper ceased operation in 2010. Bedein has covered breaking Middle East negotiations in Oslo, Ottawa, Shepherdstown, The Wye Plantation, Annapolis, Geneva, Nicosia, Washington, D.C., London, Bonn, and Vienna. Bedein has overseen investigative studies of the Palestinian Authority, the Expulsion Process from Gush Katif and Samaria, The Peres Center for Peace, Peace Now, The International Center for Economic Cooperation of Yossi Beilin, the ISM, Adalah, and the New Israel Fund.   Since 2005, Bedein has also served as Director of the Center for Near East Policy Research.   A focus of the center's investigations is The United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). In that context, Bedein authored Roadblock to Peace: How the UN Perpetuates the Arab-Israeli Conflict - UNRWA Policies Reconsidered, which caps Bedein's 28 years of investigations of UNRWA. The Center for Near East Policy Research has been instrumental in reaching elected officials, decision makers and journalists, commissioning studies, reports, news stories and films. In 2009, the center began decided to produce short movies, in addition to monographs, to film every aspect of UNRWA education in a clear and cogent fashion.   The center has so far produced seven short documentary pieces n UNRWA which have received international acclaim and recognition, showing how which UNRWA promotes anti-Semitism and incitement to violence in their education'   In sum, Bedein has pioneered The UNRWA Reform Initiative, a strategy which calls for donor nations to insist on reasonable reforms of UNRWA. Bedein and his team of experts provide timely briefings to members to legislative bodies world wide, bringing the results of his investigations to donor nations, while demanding reforms based on transparency, refugee resettlement and the demand that terrorists be removed from the UNRWA schools and UNRWA payroll.   Bedein's work can be found at: www.IsraelBehindTheNews.com and www.cfnepr.com. A new site,unrwa-monitor.com, will be launched very soon.