Pressure expected for full state inquiry into responsibility for Meron disaster

Two investigations into the failings that led to the deaths of 45 people at Mount Meron Lag B’Omer festivities are set to move into high gear after Sunday’s day of national mourning for the victims, but pressure is also expected to grow for a full-fledged state commission of inquiry into the disaster, in which ministers would also be required to testify and could be held responsible.

Former police commissioner Moshe Karadi on Friday night issued a call for such an inquiry, saying responsibility for the tragedy plainly extends beyond the police.

An initial police investigation has already shown failings “by all of the parties” that are supposed to have responsibility for the annual event, a Channel 12 news report said. Sources quoted by Channel 13 said an initial investigation has established that politicians pressured the police to allow a large number of worshipers at the site.

MK Ayman Odeh, of the Joint List, on Friday called for the resignation of the Minister of Public Security, Amir Ohana, who is responsible for the police, for failing to heed “the numerous danger signs” ahead of the event. Ohana earlier Friday himself called for an independent investigation into “all aspects related to the planning of the event, preparations, responsibilities, infrastructure.”

Public Security Minister Amir Ohana at the lighting of a bonfire during the celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Oomer on Mt. Meron in northern Israel on April 29, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed during a visit to the scene of Israel’s worst-ever peacetime disaster that the investigations would be “comprehensive, serious and detailed.”

Thus far, two investigations have been ordered — by the Police Internal Investigations Division, into its own failings, and by the police into the failures of other authorities regarding the event. However, neither of these two probes has the authority to investigate relevant ministers, including the ministers of public security, interior and religious affairs, and the prime minister himself, all of whom were involved in various meetings relating to preparations for the event.

Israael police Northern Command chief Shimon Lavi, at Mt Meron, on April 30, 2021. (YouTube screenshot)

Shimon Lavi, the head of the police’s Northern Command, said soon after the disaster that he bore “overall responsibility” for the event and thus for its consequences. A Channel 13 report said, however, that he does not intend to resign.

Sigal Bar Tzvi, head of Community Policing for Israel Police, told Channel 13 that the Merom site can hold the estimated 100,000 worshipers who gathered Thursday night, but that the disaster stemmed from too many people being crowded into the specific area where the stampede unfolded. She said police had warned of risks relating to the event in the past two weeks, citing a district commander who “spoke with who he needed to speak with,” but did not elaborate.

In the hours since the tragedy, increasing evidence has emerged that warnings about the dangers involved in the annual gathering have been ignored for years, including in two reports by the State Comptroller.

A 2008 state comptroller report warned of “systemic failure at the Rashbi [Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai] compound” at Meron, due to “many different authorities all involved in its management,” noting that it was a chaotic situation that would lead to harm to the holy site as well as endangering worshipers.

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews celebrate during a Lag B’Omer gathering on Mount Meron in northern Israel on April 29, 2021 (David Cohen/Flash90)

In an additional report from 2011, it was once again emphasized that the site was underprepared for receiving hundreds of thousands of people. “The existing situation should not be allowed to continue — including the neglected structure where [certain] groups do as they wish, to the abandonment of a site of great importance, both nationally and religiously,” the state comptroller said.

Commander Ilan Mor, head of the operational branch of the national traffic police, produced a report in 2016 titled, “Meron celebrations: Erasing the writing on the wall.”

The document analyzed past tragedies caused by overcrowding at public events, including disasters and near-disasters at Meron itself, and concluded that the infrastructure at the holy site could not safely accommodate the numbers of worshipers that attended each year at Lag B’Omer.

Police officers seen during a tour ahead of the celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer on Mt. Meron in northern Israel on May 3, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

In the report, Mor called to limit the number of people attending and to appoint a single organizer to manage the site, instead of allowing each Hasidic sect to run its own area.

With this year’s event taking place in the shadow of COVID-19 — having been canceled last year because of the pandemic — consultations involving the Health Ministry, police and other officials concluded that no more than 9,000 people should be allowed to attend the event. Agreement to this effect was never brought to the government for approval, however, because of infighting among ministers on other matters, including a major dispute over the appointment of a justice minister.

Moreover, according to news reports Friday, police representatives at these meetings made clear that they did not have the resources to ensure that all participants presented “green pass” proof of vaccination.

“We worked for weeks on a framework,” Dr. Sharon Alroy-Prais, the head of public health at the Health Ministry, had fumed in a TV interview ahead of the event, on Wednesday. “It was approved by all the parties, by the police, by the Religious Affairs Ministry, by the Interior Ministry — everyone. But in the end it fell because no one would take responsibility for enforcement,” she said, accusing the government authorities of passing the buck.

Ultimately, some 100,000 people attended the festivities, at and around the gravesite of the second century sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai — more than 10 times the number that had been envisaged, but still far fewer than in many previous years, when hundreds of thousands have participated.

Crowd in the moments before the Mt Meron tragedy, April 30, 2021 (Screen grab)

Reports in the course of Friday, moreover, indicated that the Merom mountainside has essentially become a kind of extra-territorial zone, over which the government has for years failed to fully impose its authority. Government ministries, the police, the local authority and the authority that controls Israel’s holy sites are all supposed to have certain responsibilities for the site and the annual event, but in practice overall responsibility has never been finalized, reports Friday indicated.

Separate ultra-Orthodox “courts” hold their own Lag B’Omer events at the site, and construct their own internal access routes within the facility, Hebrew media reports said Friday.

The disaster which began at 1 a.m. on Friday morning took place when huge crowds of ultra-Orthodox pilgrims were making their way along a narrow walkway, with a slippery metal flooring that ended in flights of stairs. People began to slip and fall, others fell on them, and a disastrous stampede ensued. The fitness of the walkway, whether it was approved for use and by whom, are matters that seem certain to be a focus of the various investigations.

Channel 13 news reported Friday night that various managers of the event had filed reports ahead of time saying preparations for the event were appropriate but blaming the Religious Affairs Ministry for not improving the wider infrastructure and arrangements for the area. Engineers who signed off on various elements of the event are all expected to come under investigation.

Karadi indicated on Friday night that political pressures have for years been placed on senior police echelons to tolerate gatherings for larger than they would otherwise approve.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews at Mount Meron in northern Israel ahead of the Lag B’Omer holiday, April 28, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Ahead of this year’s event, Netanyahu, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, Public Security Minister Ohana and Transportation Minister Miri Regev all publicly indicated support for a return to mass gatherings at the event, after last year’s COVID-necessitated cancelation. Ohana visited the site before the event along with Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai to review security arrangements. Shabtai was appointed police chief in January by Ohana, after two years in which the commissioner’s post was left unfilled.

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