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A week before deadly Meron crush, officials expressed grave concerns over safety

In new recording, police and rescue officials heard griping over number of attendees, fearing ‘mass casualty event,’ while then-minister Ohana asks them to accommodate more groups

Israeli rescue forces and police at the scene of the fatal crush during Lag B'Omer celebrations on Mount Meron, in northern Israel, on April 30, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Israeli rescue forces and police at the scene of the fatal crush during Lag B'Omer celebrations on Mount Meron, in northern Israel, on April 30, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Planning and safety officials expressed serious concerns over the wellbeing of pilgrims at Lag B’Omer festivities at Mount Meron last year, days before a deadly crush at the event claimed the lives of 45 people.

At a meeting on April 22, 2021, former public security minister Amir Ohana pushed police officials to allow more people into the event, even as others expressed concerns over crowding at the site, according to a recording leaked to Channel 13 news and aired Wednesday.

Eight days later, the officials saw the largest civil disaster in Israel’s history unfold as throngs slipped and fell on a walkway at the holy site, setting off a cascading tragedy that claimed the lives of 45 people who were crushed and asphyxiated to death. The disaster prompted a commission of inquiry and sweeping changes to the format of the event this year, including strict crowd limits on a pilgrimage that in the past has drawn hundreds of thousands of people.

The recording of the meeting at national police headquarters, also attended by Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, Northern District Commander Shimon Lavi, and other top officials, had not been provided to the state commission of inquiry into the tragedy, for reasons unknown.

At the meeting, multiple police officials are heard warning of the dangers of crowding, and the need to stand up to pressure from ultra-Orthodox figures pushing for attendance caps to be raised or scrapped.

Lavi is heard saying that though only 10,000 people had been ostensibly allowed to attend, he expected some 50,000 to show up.

Ohana then expresses hope that police will respond to the higher number of potential participants by allowing more groups in and doubling allowed attendance to 20,000, “to shrink the gap between what is being announced and what is actually happening.”

He also is heard asking whether police can allow Knesset members to attend the event freely.

Body bags at the scene of the Mount Meron disaster, April 30, 2021 (Screenshot)

Ohana’s Likud party is in a political alliance with ultra-Orthodox Shas and UTJ. According to reports, requests from religious figures from various sects to increase the numbers of pilgrims allowed at the event made their way to then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then-interior minister Aryeh Deri, Ohana and others. This is believed to have led to pressure on police to allow as many people as possible to freely attend.

In the recording, a fire and rescue representative warns of a potential mass casualty event during the meeting. “It can be very substantial,” he says, noting an incident when a balcony collapsed at the site in 1911, killing 13 people.

Police chief Shabtai says that in previous years, women and children had faced danger on multiple occasions. “There are people here who’ve lost lots of calories over the fears and challenges of keeping the children breathing, and the women,” he notes wryly.

Northern District Police chief Shimon Lavi, left, and Deputy Minister of Religious Affairs Matan Kahana, center, during a tour at the Tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, in Meron, northern Israel, May 16, 2022, ahead of the Lag B’omer festival. (David Cohen/Flash90)

In the recording, a representative of religious groups overseeing the site is heard assuring those present that safety issues have been accounted for safety issues and made all repairs necessary at the site “by the book.”

He adds that the police should not be making decisions on who is able to attend, as such decisions create “resentment and unrest in the [Hasidic] community.”

Shabtai testified before the commission on the Lag B’Omer tragedy in April this year and maintained that he was not responsible for the crush, blaming it on faulty engineering of the slippery walkway.

He also rejected accusations from former police’s operations division head Amnon Alkalai that he had ignored warnings of the dangers of overcrowding at the site.

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai (L) and Public Security Minister Amir Ohana at the bonfire lighting celebrations for Lag B’Omer, hours before the tragedy, April 30, 2021 (Israel Police)

In May, the Knesset Finance Committee approved a compensation deal in which each family received NIS 500,000 ($160,000) for every family member deceased in the tragedy, for a total of NIS 22.5 million.

This year’s event took place under heavy restrictions compared to the past, in order to avoid another stampede.

The most striking of these changes was the restriction on the number of people allowed up to Mount Meron to no more than 16,000 at any given time. Unlike in the freewheeling celebrations in previous years, where anyone could simply walk up to Mount Meron, this year reservations were required in advance and people could only arrive in buses organized by the Transportation Ministry.

Haredi leaders criticized this year’s limitations as overly restrictive, and some ultra-Orthodox worshipers broke through police barricades to enter the tomb site, nearly trampling the people inside.

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