The Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department will immediately open a probe into possible police negligence in the fatal stampede in Meron, the attorney general announced on Friday.
At least 44 people were crushed to death and more than 150 people hurt, including many in critical condition, in a stampede at a mass gathering to celebrate the Lag B’Omer holiday at Mount Meron.
Investigators arrived on the scene to commence the investigation and gather evidence.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, in a statement, said “it was decided that the PIID will immediately examine whether there are suspicions of criminality by police in the tragedy in Meron.”
Mandelblit added that at this stage, testimony won’t be taken from police officers who were present at the scene.
Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, who oversees the police and was present at the event on Thursday just a few hours before the deadly stampede, called for an independent inquiry.
“It is clear an independent examination of all aspects related to the planning of the event will be needed, [including the] preparation, responsibilities, infrastructure and the like,” Ohana said.
“I send heartfelt condolences to the families and pray for the speedy recovery of the wounded,” Ohana added in the statement made during a visit to the scene of the disaster on Friday morning with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The premier did not comment publicly during the visit but earlier sent his condolences.
Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, speaking from the Ziv Medical Center in Safed where many of the injured were taken, also said that he believed it was too early to start pointing fingers.
“This is not the time to start debating who is responsible for what,” Edelstein said.
The minister noted that the hospital had held a training exercise the day before.
“When the crew was called in the middle of the night they knew what they were coming for,” Edelstein said.
The police force’s Northern District Commander Shimon Lavi, who oversaw the security arrangements for the mass celebrations, said Friday morning that he took responsibility for the disaster.
“I bear overall responsibility, for better or worse, and am ready for any investigation,” he told reporters hours after the tragedy.
However, police spokesperson Eli Levi later said it “would be too early, and wrong to point out the cause” of the stampede, saying that the footage seen on television “does not give the full picture and chronology.”
While some eyewitnesses accused police of blocking a key exit route, which had for years been seen as a dangerous potential bottleneck, Levi said that the precise cause of the disaster remained unclear.
Initial indications were that the fatal crushing occurred as large numbers of ultra-Orthodox pilgrims moving through a narrow and slippery metal-floored walkway, on an incline, began to trip and fall on each other along the walkway and adjoining stairs.
As early as 2018 some had warned of such an incident occurring. Ultra-Orthodox journalist Arye Erlich had advised expanding what he said was the only exit route from the Meron compound, from a narrow bottleneck, to avoid a tragedy.
“Who will prevent the disaster during the lighting ceremony,” a headline in the ultra-Orthodox website Haredim10 read three years ago, referring to the bonfire event.
Police officials told the Haaretz daily that while the police were securing the event, and had examined the compound from an engineering point of view in recent days, an incident of people falling down the stairs was “out of their control.”
At around midnight Thursday, organizers had estimated that some 100,000 people were at the site. The huge gathering, the largest in Israel since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, had already sparked health fears.
Due to the large crowds, police said they were unable to enforce coronavirus restrictions at the site.
Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health services at the Health Ministry, who earlier in the week had warned that mass Lag B’Omer gatherings at Meron could drive an outbreak of the coronavirus, told Army Radio on Friday that the disaster could have been averted if police had enforced the restrictions on the number of people allowed to gather.
“It was not possible to reach an agreement on who enforces the regulations at Mt. Meron,” she said. “I remind you that the number of people allowed to gather outside is restricted to 100 — it is the responsibility of the police to enforce the laws of the State of Israel.”
On Wednesday, Alroy-Preis accused the government and authorities of passing the buck on the enforcement of safety precautions at the site in the context of the pandemic.