Netanyahu visits Meron injured in hospital amid questions over government role

Israeli rescue forces and police at a mass fatality scene during a gathering for the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer on Mt. Meron, in northern Israel, on April 30, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Following the disaster during Lag B’Omer celebrations, and under intensifying public, political, and media scrutiny of the chain of events that led to the tragedy at the gravesite of second-century sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, a picture has emerged of a facility caught in a years-long tug of war between various authorities, religious sects, and interest groups that left it bereft of proper, unified state oversight, even as constant warning bells were being sounded regarding its potential for catastrophe.

Since the disaster, several former police chiefs have characterized Meron — Israel’s second-most visited Jewish holy site after the Western Wall — as a kind of extraterritorial facility. It was administered by several ultra-Orthodox groups, while the National Center for the Protection of Holy Places, part of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, apparently had some responsibility over it as well, as did the local authority, and the police. But ultimately, no single state body had full responsibility.

“The site needs to be handled differently. What is happening at the moment does not respect the place or human life. The state is obligated to take responsibility for it,” Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau told Army Radio Sunday.

United Torah Judaism leader MK Moshe Gafni, at a conference in Jerusalem on March 7, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The head of the United Torah Judaism party, Moshe Gafni, told the Kan public broadcaster that the Mount Meron site “looks like Eastern Asia. The place hasn’t been touched since the establishment of the state.”

He added: “You can’t have so many people come to such a small space and not have a disaster.”

At the same time, in a letter to the prime minister, the Retired Police Commissioners and Major General’s Forum said Sunday that only a thorough investigation examining the role of all bodies involved in organizing the annual event can provide sufficient input to prevent another disaster in the future.

“The Mount Meron incident is not the sole responsibility of the Israel Police,” wrote the forum, which is led by ex-Israel Police chief Moshe Karadi.

The letter came as the Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department began its own probe of the force’s role in the planning and securing of the festival attended by some 100,000 people, principally from the ultra-Orthodox community. The Israel Police has also launched an investigation.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather at the grave site of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai at Mount Meron in northern Israel on April 29, 2021, as they celebrate the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer. (JALAA MAREY / AFP)

The tragedy occurred early Friday, as thousands streamed through a narrow walkway that was covered with metal flooring and may have been wet, causing some people to fall underfoot during the rush for the exit. Some apparently fell on the walkway and down a flight of stairs at its end, toppling onto those below and precipitating a fatal crushing domino effect.

Netanyahu is expected to oppose a state commission of inquiry, fearing its political consequences, Channel 12 news reported Saturday.

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