The head of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party on Wednesday threw his backing behind the establishment of a state commission of inquiry into the deadly crush at a religious festival last month that killed 45 people, including many children.
No arrests have been made since the April 30 tragedy, the deadliest civilian disaster in Israel’s history, which is being investigated by the Israel Police.
UTJ MK Moshe Gafni chairs the Knesset Finance Committee, which held a session Tuesday on the disaster during Lag B’Omer celebrations at Mount Meron in northern Israel. In a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, he said the parliamentary committee agreed the “correct way” to proceed is to form an official commission of inquiry, which would be led by a Supreme Court justice.
Gafni also said he would chair further committee meetings on the matter “so we can offer solutions for the future so a case like this will not happen again.”
“I also believe that this is the right way to obtain a legal solution regarding the sanctuaries and ownership at Meron, as well as comfort for the families of the dead,” he wrote in the letter.
He asked Netanyahu to have the government begin advancing a proposal to establish a state commission that will investigate the disaster and “make recommendations that will allow for the regulation of the site in terms of halacha [Jewish law], engineering and safety.”
It was unclear if Netanyahu would allow a proposal to form a commission come before the government for approval. While the premier has said he backs a thorough investigation, he has not taken up calls to back an official state commission of inquiry.
Wednesday’s letter appeared to mark a reversal for Gafni, whose party is part of Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc. Gafni suggested during Tuesday’s meeting that a committee led by the chief rabbi be formed to address the problems at Meron, drawing some ridicule.
Also Wednesday, the centrist Yesh Atid party — which is seeking to replace Netanyahu as prime minister following the March elections — said it would seek to fast-track a bill to form a state commission to investigate the disaster during a vote next week, suggesting possible cross-bloc support.
Earlier this month, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced that a joint investigative team from the Israel Police and the Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department will lead a probe into the deadly incident.
Police and the PIID had already launched independent probes. State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman has also announced that he will investigate.
There have been increasing demands for a state commission of inquiry into the tragedy, with the focus directed at the organization of the annual Lag B’Omer events at Mount Meron.
The disaster, which began around 1 a.m. on April 30 near the gravesite of the second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, 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 upon them, and a calamitous crush ensued.
The site, the second-most visited religious site in Israel after the Western Wall, has become an extraterritorial zone of sorts, with separate ultra-Orthodox sects organizing their own events and their own access arrangements, with no overall supervision and with police routinely pressured by cabinet ministers and ultra-Orthodox politicians not to object.
Former police officials have said there had been fears for years that tragedy could strike as a result of the massive crowds and lack of supervision on Lag B’Omer.
Multiple reports in Hebrew media outlets indicated that there had been immense pressure by religious lawmakers ahead of the festivities to ensure that there would be no limits placed on the number of attendees due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Some 100,000 mostly ultra-Orthodox pilgrims ultimately attended the event. A framework drawn up by the Health Ministry, in consultation with other government officials, police and others, would have limited the event to 9,000 participants but was not implemented.
In another incident on Sunday, two people were killed and 167 injured, including five seriously, when a bleacher collapsed under celebrants in a Givat Ze’ev synagogue just before the start of the Shavuot festival on Sunday evening.