The police force’s Northern District Commander Shimon Lavi, who oversaw the security arrangements at Meron, said Friday morning that he takes responsibility for the disaster that killed at least 44 people overnight, as criticism grew that the tragedy could have been prevented.
“I bear overall responsibility, for better or worse, and am ready for any investigation,” he told reporters following the deadly stampede.
While some eyewitnesses had accused police of blocking a key exit, he stressed that the cause of the disaster remained unclear.
It wasn’t immediately clear why police may have prevented some people from leaving the scene, which would have lessened pressure on the packed crowd, but officers were apparently unaware of the severity of the situation and trying to keep some areas clear of congregants.
There is an ongoing “complicated effort to gather evidence to reach the truth,” Lavi said, adding that police officers saved lives during the stampede, pushing through the crowds to rescue those trapped.
At least 44 people were crushed to death and more than 100 people hurt, including many in critical condition, in a stampede after midnight Thursday at a mass gathering to celebrate the Lag B’Omer holiday at Mount Meron.
According to Army Radio, children were among the dead and injured.
The event appeared to be one of the worst peacetime tragedies in Israel’s history, equaling the death toll from the 2010 Mount Carmel forest fire.
A police official said dozens of participants in a concert had “slipped” while walking along a crowded walkway, causing a crushing domino effect.
As early as 2018 some had warned of such an incident occurring. Ultra-Orthodox journalist Arye Erlich had advised expanding the only exit from the Meron compound, from the narrow bottleneck that exists today, to avoid a repeat of a 2015 stampede at a funeral that killed one and wounded others.
“Who will prevent the disaster during the lighting ceremony,” a headline in the ultra-Orthodox website Haredim10 read three years ago, referring to the bonfire event.
Police officials told the Haaretz daily that while the police were securing the event, and had examined the compound from an engineering point of view in recent days, an incident of people falling down the stairs was “out of their control.”
At around midnight Thursday, organizers had estimated that some 100,000 people were at the site. The huge gathering, the largest in Israel since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, had already sparked health fears.
Due to the large crowds, police said they were unable to enforce coronavirus restrictions at the site.