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AG: Transitional government can form state inquiry into Meron disaster

Justice Minister Gantz, whose query prompted Mandelblit’s opinion, instructs his office to prepare a probe proposal

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks at an event at Bar Ilan University, March 4, 2020. (Flash90)
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks at an event at Bar Ilan University, March 4, 2020. (Flash90)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit said Monday there is no legal obstacle that would prevent the current caretaker government from forming a state commission of inquiry into last week’s deadly Meron disaster.

The legal opinion was submitted in response to Justice Minister Benny Gantz, who requested the attorney general’s position on the feasibility of such a probe being created before a permanent government is sworn in. In appealing to Mandelblit, Gantz wrote that “only a state commission will be able to manage all aspects of an investigation into the disaster.”

Following Mandelblit’s position, Gantz’s office announced Monday that the ministry had directed his staff to put together a proposal for a state inquiry that would be submitted to the cabinet for its approval.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to Hebrew media reports, fears the political repercussions of such an inquiry.

Gantz and other political opponents of Netanyahu have joined growing calls for a state inquiry into the fatal crush of 45 people, including over a dozen children and teenagers, during the Lag B’Omer festival. The Israel Police, fire department, Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department, and state comptroller have opened their own probes into Israel’s deadliest civilian disaster.

In announcing the opening of his own special investigation earlier Monday, State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman said 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 Englman at a Jerusalem press conference.

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

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

Englman, who was Netanyahu’s pick for state comptroller and elected by the Knesset in 2019, denied that he had been asked by the premier or his office to initiate the probe. There had been concerns that he initiated the investigation to head off the formation of a formal state commission of inquiry.

Englman’s investigation does not have the authority to compel witnesses to testify, nor to issue binding conclusions — only recommendations. A state commission, by contrast, is headed by a former or current senior judge, and its recommendations, though not formally binding either, carry far greater weight.

The state comptroller has been accused in the past by opponents of the prime minister of diluting his office’s reports to avoid criticizing the Likud-led government.

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)

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.

Following the disaster, a picture has emerged of a facility caught in a years-long tug of war between various authorities, religious sects, and interest groups that left it bereft of proper, unified state oversight, even as constant warning bells were being sounded regarding its potential for catastrophe.

Since the event, several former police chiefs have characterized Meron — Israel’s second-most visited Jewish holy site after the Western Wall — as a kind of extraterritorial facility. It was administered by several ultra-Orthodox groups, while the National Center for the Protection of Holy Places, part of the Ministry of Religious Affairs, apparently had some responsibility over it as well, as did the local authority, and the police. But ultimately, no single state body had full responsibility.

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