Amid growing questions over the lack of state oversight at the Mount Meron compound where 45 people were crushed to death late last week, Defense Minister Benny Gantz appealed to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Sunday to give his legal opinion on the feasibility of forming a state commission of inquiry under the transitional government.
“There is an urgency in forming a committee quickly so that it can carry out a preliminary probe while information is readily available,” Gantz wrote in a letter to Mandelblit.
He said that “only a state commission will be able to manage all aspects of an investigation into the disaster.”
Israel was observing a national day of mourning on Sunday for the victims of the disaster, who ranged in age from 9 to 65. Sixteen of over 150 people initially hospitalized remained in the hospital Sunday evening.
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.
A state commission of inquiry into the disaster “will not bring families back their loved ones or help their pain, but it can prevent such a disaster from happening in the future,” Gantz said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised a “thorough” investigation, but he has not responded to the calls for a state commission of inquiry that could require testimony from the political echelon and could issue conclusions and recommendations regarding any political culpability.
According to Channel 12 news, he is expected to oppose a state commission of inquiry, fearing its political consequences.
Earlier Sunday, the Retired Police Commissioners and Major General’s Forum sent a letter to Netanyahu saying that only a thorough investigation examining the role of all bodies involved in organizing the annual event can provide sufficient input to prevent another disaster in the future.
“The Mount Meron incident is not the sole responsibility of the Israel Police,” wrote the forum, which is led by ex-Israel Police chief Moshe Karadi.
The letter came as the Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department began its own probe of the force’s role in the planning and securing of the festival attended by some 100,000 people, principally from the ultra-Orthodox community. IIDP officers reportedly toured the site on Sunday.
The Israel Police has also launched an investigation.
Calls for a state inquiry come amid criticism of the government for not taking full control over the Meron site.
Following the disaster during Lag B’Omer celebrations, and under intensifying public, political, and media scrutiny of the chain of events that led to the tragedy at the gravesite of second-century sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, 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 disaster, 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.
“The site needs to be handled differently. What is happening at the moment does not respect the place or human life. The state is obligated to take responsibility for it,” Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau told Army Radio Sunday.
Hebrew media reported that Police Minister Amir Ohana intends to try and shift the blame for the tragedy to Israel’s Supreme Court.
Channel 12 reported that Ohana’s office was collecting information on past appeals to the court, in a bid to show that the judges had prevented the state from taking over full control of the site. Ohana denied the report.
The Kan public broadcaster, meanwhile, said that Ohana will argue that even though police presented him with their plans before the event, he does not have the authority to authorize or cancel these plans.
In his first comments on the disaster on Saturday, Ohana said that he bears overall responsibility, “but responsibility does not mean blame.”
Meanwhile, the gabai, or manager, of Mt. Meron’s local synagogue told Channel 12 Sunday evening that he believes the growing trend in recent years of more and more bonfire lighting ceremonies by various Haredi sects at the site on Lag B’Omer must stop.
“I’ve been here for 33 years. It’s not possible that every year there’s another bonfire for another Hasidic leader. I think and I suggest to all authorities… to cancel these bonfires,” Haim Ben-Shimon said.
“All of these bonfire lightings are to make money, and I know it. It’s not out of piety. Anyone who wants to light a candle can light a candle at home and have a festive meal at home,” he charged.
“The original bonfire lighting here, for generations, was only the Hasidic leader of Boyan [dynasty]. But the other Hasidic leaders who suddenly decided to make lightings, I know personally these [events] are bought for hundreds of thousands of dollars,” Ben-Shimon said, appearing to be referring to proceeds from the events.
While the head of United Torah Judaism Moshe Gafni defended his own party’s role in the management of the site, he told Channel 12 that he did not oppose a commission of inquiry into the disaster.
Gafni denied that he or anyone from his party put political pressure on police to allow such a large gathering to take place. Gafni, who heads the Lithuanian faction in UTJ, said he had done “everything for years” to get the state to “deal with Meron” and said the principal failure was caused by the government’s refusal to allocate the funds necessary to upgrade the roads and infrastructure at the site, which he called “third world.”
Gafni estimated it would cost some $200 million.
Meanwhile, the heads of the Hasidic branch of the party have remained silent since the disaster, as have Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and Minister of Religious Affairs Yaakov Avitan of the Shas party.
Deri indicated in a Thursday evening radio interview, hours before the Meron tragedy, that he had blocked Health Ministry efforts to impose restrictions on this year’s event, Channel 13 reported Saturday. Those restrictions were apparently more related to COVID concerns than the terrifying annual overcrowding.
The TV station broadcast an excerpt from the interview with Radio Kol Hai, in which Deri said he “of course would not allow” regulations to be introduced due to the coronavirus pandemic. His comments appeared to relate to a framework agreement drawn up by Health Ministry officials, the police and others, which, among other provisions, would reportedly have restricted participation at the Lag B’Omer festivities Thursday night to 9,000 people, and required that they provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test.