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Knesset panel fast-tracks bill to form commission of inquiry into Meron disaster

Opposition-pushed motion backed by 19 MKs, opposed by 13 members of pro-Netanyahu bloc after heated debate at Arrangements Committee

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

Following a heated debate, a key Knesset panel on Monday approved the fast-tracking of an opposition-pushed bill to form an official commission of inquiry into the Meron disaster, in which 45 ultra-Orthodox worshipers were crushed to death during a religious festival last month.

No arrests have been made since the April 30 tragedy during Lag B’Omer celebrations at Mount Meron in northern Israel, the deadliest civilian disaster in the country’s history, though it is being investigated by the Israel Police.

The motion to fast-track the commission of inquiry bill was backed in the Arrangements Committee by 19 members, including lawmakers from parties opposing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as the potential kingmaker Yamina party.

The proposal was opposed by 13 lawmakers, all from Netanyahu’s Likud party or the ultra-Orthodox and right-wing parties supporting him.

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid leads a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 24, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The bill is being pushed by the Yesh Atid party, whose leader, Yair Lapid, is seeking to replace Netanyahu as prime minister following the March elections.

The motion means the bill can be brought immediately for votes in the Knesset plenum, without having to wait the default time. The bill needs to pass a preliminary vote as well as three readings to become law.

There have been increasing demands for a state commission of inquiry into the tragedy, with the focus directed at the organization of the annual Lag B’Omer events at Mount Meron.

A forum of families of the disaster victims appealed a day earlier to Netanyahu to establish a state commission of inquiry.

“We want to say in a loud, clear, and unequivocal voice that cannot be misinterpreted, all the families as one, that we are demanding an independent state commission of inquiry,” they wrote in a letter. “We are convinced that only a state commission of inquiry can thoroughly and completely investigate this.”

MK Karin Elharar seen during a Yesh Atid faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, May 24, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Monday’s discussion, chaired by Arrangements Committee chairwoman MK Karine Elharrar (Yesh Atid), was frequently interrupted by shouting matches between lawmakers, who were also debating motions to fast-track other bills aimed at hindering Netanyahu’s ability to form a new government.

Some lawmakers decried Elharrar’s behavior as aggressive, with Likud MK May Golan calling it a “dictatorship.”

Several MKs, including the extremist Itamar Ben Gvir (Religious Zionism), were temporarily expelled from the discussion room. Other members of the pro-Netanyahu bloc exited in protest, then returned for the vote.

Most ultra-Orthodox MKs have opposed a state commission of inquiry and have pushed for a different kind of probe into the incident that would hand Haredi-controlled bodies greater power over the conclusions.

MK Ya’akov Asher (United Torah Judaism) said after the vote that “Yesh Atid is covering itself in self-righteousness by seemingly caring for the Meron victims. Through dictatorial bullying, they blocked our law bills for an inquiry into the Meron disaster and compensation to the victims’ families, who are begging for quick financial aid. The cynical political exploitation of those killed in the tragedy deserves all condemnation. Shame on you.”

Meretz MK Tamar Zandberg lambasted the pro-Netanyahu bloc for voting against the motion.

“What happened at the Arrangements Committee is an absolute disgrace,” she said. “The Netanyahu bloc’s vote against the bill is a blatant disregard for the 45 fatalities and a spit in the face of the families. Forming a state commission of inquiry into the Meron disaster isn’t a matter of right or left — it’s a matter of human lives. It seems like the right favors covering up the truth over preventing the next tragedy.”

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.

Last Wednesday the head of United Torah Judaism threw his backing behind an official commission of inquiry, which would be led by a Supreme Court justice. That stance came in contrast to his party members’ opposition to Monday’s motion.

UTJ MK Moshe Gafni, who chairs the Knesset Finance Committee but isn’t a member of the Arrangements Committee, sent a letter to Netanyahu saying that it would be the “correct way” to investigate the disaster.

“I also believe that this is the right way to obtain a legal solution regarding the sanctuaries and ownership at Meron, as well as comfort for the families of the dead,” he wrote in the letter.

Earlier this month, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced that a joint investigative team from the Israel Police and the Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department would lead a probe into the deadly incident.

Police and the PIID had already launched independent probes. State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman has also announced that he will investigate.

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

The disaster, which began around 1 a.m. on April 30 near the gravesite of the second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, took place when huge crowds of ultra-Orthodox pilgrims were making their way along a narrow walkway with a slippery metal flooring that ended in flights of stairs. People began to slip and fall, others fell upon them, and a calamitous crush ensued.

The site, the second-most visited religious site in Israel after the Western Wall, has become an extraterritorial zone of sorts, with separate ultra-Orthodox sects organizing their own events and their own access arrangements, with no overall supervision and with police routinely pressured by cabinet ministers and ultra-Orthodox politicians not to object.

Former police officials have said there had been fears for years that tragedy could strike as a result of the massive crowds and lack of supervision on Lag B’Omer.

Multiple reports in Hebrew media outlets indicated there had been immense pressure by religious lawmakers ahead of the festivities to ensure that there would be no limits placed on the number of attendees due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some 100,000 mostly ultra-Orthodox pilgrims ultimately attended the event. A framework drawn up by the Health Ministry, in consultation with other government officials, police and others, would have limited the event to 9,000 participants but was not implemented.

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