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Commission set to tell police brass they will be held responsible for Meron disaster

Report says police chief Shabtai and other senior officers will receive warning letters pointing to aspects of their conduct; Shabtai has no intention of resigning

Police chief Kobi Shabtai ahead of his testimony before the Meron disaster commission, in Jerusalem, on April 11, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Police chief Kobi Shabtai ahead of his testimony before the Meron disaster commission, in Jerusalem, on April 11, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Police chief Kobi Shabtai and other senior officers are expected to be notified within weeks by the state commission of inquiry investigating the 2021 Mount Meron disaster that they are likely to be held responsible for the disaster, which saw 45 people killed in a deadly crush, the Ynet news site reported Wednesday.

The April 2021 incident at the religious 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.

According to Ynet, several high-ranking officials will soon receive warning letters from the committee, pointing to aspects of their conduct before and during the tragedy, which the committee believes they should be held accountable for.

These include, among others, Shabtai and Northern District Chief Shimon Lavi, who on Monday announced his resignation from the force, citing his responsibility in the deadly Mount Meron crush.

Despite his resignation, Lavi is still expected to receive a letter from the committee and may face further consequences.

While the committee’s recommendations will not obligate a future government to adopt them, no Israeli government has ever completely ignored the recommendations of a state commission of inquiry.

Screen capture from video of the disaster during Lag B’Omer celebrations at Mount Meron, on April 30, 2021. (Channel 12)

According to the report, other officers who the committee is probing include Brig.-Gen. Morris Chen, who served as head of the Police Operations Department at the time of the disaster.

Bereaved family members of the 45 victims who lost their lives in the disaster have repeatedly urged all involved officials to resign.

However, Ynet cited Shabtai associates as saying that he does not intend to resign.

A spokesperson for the forum of bereaved families of the disaster told Ynet that “now is the last chance” for officials “to do the bare minimum and take responsibility.”

“If the commissioner only resigns after receiving the letter, it won’t be taking responsibility… if he doesn’t [resign], he will be declaring that he does not recognize the judicial system,” the spokesperson added.

Victims of the April 30, 2021, Mount Meron disaster: Top row (L-R): Chen Doron, Haim Rock, Ariel Tzadik, Yossi Kohn, Yisrael Anakvah, Yishai Mualem, Yosef Mastorov, Elkana Shiloh and Moshe Levy; 2nd row (L-R): Shlomo Zalman Leibowitz, Shmuel Zvi Klagsbald, Mordechai Fakata, Dubi Steinmetz, Abraham Daniel Ambon, Eliezer Gafner, Yosef Greenbaum, Yehuda Leib Rubin and Yaakov Elchanan Starkovsky; 3rd row (L-R): Haim Seler, Yehoshua Englard, Moshe Natan Neta Englard, Yedidia Hayut, Moshe Ben Shalom, David Krauss, Eliezer Tzvi Joseph, Yosef Yehuda Levy and Yosef Amram Tauber; 4th row (L-R): Menachem Knoblowitz, Elazar Yitzchok Koltai, Yosef David Elhadad, Shraga Gestetner, Yonatan Hebroni, Shimon Matalon, Elazar Mordechai Goldberg, Moshe Bergman and Daniel Morris; 5th row (L-R): Ariel Achdut, Moshe Mordechai Elhadad, Hanoch Slod, Yedidya Fogel, Menahem Zakbah, Simcha Diskind, Moshe Tzarfati, Nahman Kirshbaum and Eliyahu Cohen.

According to a recording leaked to Channel 13 and aired last month, which for unknown reasons was not provided to the commission of inquiry, Shabtai, Lavi and other top police officials attended a meeting before the planned annual event on Mount Meron, where they were warned about 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 was heard saying that though only 10,000 people had been ostensibly allowed to attend, he expected some 50,000 to show up.

Then-public security minister Ohana then expressed hope that police would 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.”

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

Shabtai is then heard saying 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 noted wryly.

Outgoing Northern District Commander Shimon Lavi (R) and Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai (R) at Mount Meron ahead of the tragedy, April 29, 2021 (Israel Police)

In April this year, Shabtai testified before the commission 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 operations division head Amnon Alkalai that he had ignored warnings of the dangers of overcrowding at the site.

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu, who was prime minister at the time of the disaster, is expected to testify before the state commission of inquiry on Thursday. He will be the most senior official to testify before the committee.

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