A government commission investigating a deadly accident at a Jewish pilgrimage site in April held its first day of hearings Sunday, almost four months after the crush at Mount Meron left 45 people dead.
The April 29 incident at the Jewish festival in northern Israel was the deadliest civilian disaster in the country’s history. Around 100,000 worshipers, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, attended festivities despite longstanding warnings about the safety of the site.
Hundreds of people bottlenecked in a narrow passageway, where a slippery slope caused people to stumble and fall.
The resulting human avalanche killed 45 people and injured at least 150.
In June, the government approved the formation of an independent state commission of inquiry to investigate safety shortcomings at the site.
A panel headed by former Supreme Court justice Miriam Naor began proceedings with testimony from Northern District police chief Shimon Lavi, the officer who was in charge of managing the event.
Lavi said the Mount Meron festivities are the Israel Police’s most significant annual event, requiring extensive resources, planning and preparation. He said that out of safety concerns “there has been no limitation on attendance at Meron — that’s how it has been done for the last 30 years.”
Any attempt to limit entry and put up barricades could result in “bottlenecks and much greater disasters,” he said.
The site in northern Israel is believed to be the burial place of celebrated second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. The tomb complex and adjoining structures are managed by the Religious Services Ministry’s department for holy places.
Experts had long warned that the Mount Meron complex was inadequately equipped to handle the enormous crowds that flock there during the springtime holiday, and that existing infrastructure was a safety risk.
April’s gathering went forward this year despite fears of mass coronavirus infections at the site, as powerful ultra-Orthodox politicians reportedly pressured then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other government officials to forgo attendance restrictions.
Lavi said there had been “neglect for many years” and “a lack of understanding that the event grew over time and that the infrastructure was not adequate, but rather a kind of Band-Aid.”
The commission has called on five other officials to appear in addition to Lavi: Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, the rabbi of the Western Wall and the Holy Sites of Israel; 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.
Former chief justice Naor is joined on the panel 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.
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.
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.