State inquiry into Meron disaster summons its first witnesses

The state commission of inquiry into the tragedy at Mount Meron officially summoned its first witnesses on Thursday.

The commission called on six officials to appear: Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, the rabbi of the Western Wall and the Holy Sites of Israel; Northern District Police Commander Shimon Lavie; former Israel Police deputy commissioner Alon Asur; Yosef Schwinger, head of the National Center for the Development of Holy Places; Yisrael Deri, the head of the northern branch of the National Center for the Development of Holy Places; and Eli Friend, manager of the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.

A date for their testimony has yet to be finalized.

The three-member panel was established in late June, after the new government was sworn in, to investigate the deadly disaster that took place at Mount Meron on April 30. The tragedy, sparked by a crush of people along a narrow pathway at the site, left 45 people dead, making it the worst civilian disaster in Israeli history.

The committee is headed by former Supreme Court justice Miriam Naor, who is joined by former Bnei Brak mayor Rabbi Mordechai Karelitz and former Israel Defense Forces planning chief Maj. Gen. (res.) Shlomo Yanai. The panel has been granted a budget of NIS 6 million ($1.83 million) to investigate how the disaster unfolded, and probe the decision-making processes that authorized the event.

The panel began work a month ago, ordering the attorney general to hand over documents related to the planning of the event.

After the state inquiry began its work, the attorney general suspended the criminal investigation into the disaster in order to give priority to the governmental commission. Shortly afterward, State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman also suspended his investigation of the tragedy for the same reason.

Victims of the April 30, 2021, Mount Meron disaster: Top row (L-R): Chen Doron, Haim Rock, Ariel Tzadik, Yossi Kohn, Yisrael Anakvah, Yishai Mualem, Yosef Mastorov, Elkana Shiloh and Moshe Levy; 2nd row (L-R): Shlomo Zalman Leibowitz, Shmuel Zvi Klagsbald, Mordechai Fakata, Dubi Steinmetz, Abraham Daniel Ambon, Eliezer Gafner, Yosef Greenbaum, Yehuda Leib Rubin and Yaakov Elchanan Starkovsky; 3rd row (L-R): Haim Seler, Yehoshua Englard, Moshe Natan Neta Englard, Yedidia Hayut, Moshe Ben Shalom, David Krauss, Eliezer Tzvi Joseph, Yosef Yehuda Levy and Yosef Amram Tauber; 4th row (L-R): Menachem Knoblowitz, Elazar Yitzchok Koltai, Yosef David Elhadad, Shraga Gestetner, Yonatan Hebroni, Shimon Matalon, Elazar Mordechai Goldberg, Moshe Bergman and Daniel Morris; 5th row (L-R): Ariel Achdut, Moshe Mordechai Elhadad, Hanoch Slod, Yedidya Fogel, Menahem Zakbah, Simcha Diskind, Moshe Tzarfati, Nahman Kirshbaum and Eliyahu Cohen.

The state commission of inquiry can subpoena witnesses, but the report and testimony it gathers cannot be used as evidence in criminal proceedings, according to the Israel Democracy Institute think tank.

The establishment of the committee has been met by anger from some in the ultra-Orthodox community, who fear they will be blamed for pressuring for the event to go ahead as planned despite warnings of overcrowding. Others, including many of the families of those deceased, have welcomed the investigation.

On Monday, the three commission members toured the Mount Meron site, and were met with jeers by some onlookers.

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