State comptroller announces investigation into ‘preventable’ Meron disaster

The state comptroller announced Monday that he would be opening a special investigation into the disaster at the Mount Meron compound where 45 people were crushed to death last week, saying that the tragedy was “preventable.”

“I intend to launch a special investigation into the circumstances that led to this disaster, the preparation of the various bodies, both this year and during the years that have elapsed since the State Comptroller’s report from 2011,” said Matanyahu Englman at a Jerusalem press conference.

“This is an event that was preventable, and now it is up to us to examine and investigate how and what should have been done to prevent it,” Englman said.

The state comptroller said that the investigation would focus on three main aspects: the conduct of all parties involved, starting with the decision-makers and including law enforcement system, prior to and during the event; the administration of the Rashbi [Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai] compound in Meron over the years; and steps that can be taken to prevent the recurrence of such a disaster in the future.

State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman attends a press conference announcing investigation into Mount Meron tragedy in Jerusalem, May 3, 2021 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Englman said that if there was a suspicion of criminal conduct, the information would be passed to the attorney general for consideration.

Additionally, Englman said he would examine any work done by a potential state commission of inquiry into the tragedy.

Forty-five people were crushed to death and more than 150 people hurt, including many in critical condition, in a tragedy at a mass gathering to celebrate the Lag B’Omer holiday at the Mount Meron site in the early hours of Friday morning.

The state comptroller has warned on at least two occasions that the site at the Mount Meron compound was dangerously ill-equipped for the hundreds of thousands who regularly attend Lag B’Omer celebrations there.

A 2008 state comptroller report warned of “systemic failure” at the Meron compound 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.

Mourners attend the funeral of Abraham Ambon, one of the victims of the Meron tragedy, where 45 people were crushed to death during a Lag b’Omer event, in Jerusalem, May 3, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/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.

Engleman’s announcement came amid pressure to form a state commission of inquiry into the disaster.

On Sunday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz appealed to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Sunday to give his legal opinion on the feasibility of forming a state commission of inquiry under the transitional government, saying that “only a state commission will be able to manage all aspects of an investigation into the disaster.”

Israelis light candles for the 45 victims who were killed in a crush at Mount Meron during the Lag B’Omer celebrations, at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. May 2, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised a “thorough” investigation, but he has not responded to the calls for a state commission of inquiry that could require testimony from the political echelon and could issue conclusions and recommendations regarding any political culpability.

According to Channel 12 news, he is expected to oppose a state commission of inquiry, fearing its political consequences.

Earlier Sunday, the Retired Police Commissioners and Major Generals Forum sent a letter to Netanyahu saying that only a thorough investigation examining the role of all bodies involved in organizing the annual event could provide sufficient input to prevent another disaster.

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. IIDP officers toured the site on Sunday.

The Israel Police has also launched an investigation.

Calls for a state inquiry come amid criticism of the government for not taking full control over the Meron site.

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