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Manager of Rashbi gravesite tells Meron probe his authority is ‘limited’

Eli Friend testifies before commission into Israel’s worst civilian disaster: ‘I begged, but I was not even invited to a single meeting’

Eli Friend, manager of the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, arrives to testify before the Meron Disaster Inquiry Committee, in Jerusalem, on August 24, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Eli Friend, manager of the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, arrives to testify before the Meron Disaster Inquiry Committee, in Jerusalem, on August 24, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As the government commission investigating a deadly accident at a Jewish pilgrimage site in April heard testimony for the third consecutive day from officials involved in the oversight of Mount Meron in the north, Eli Friend, manager of the site, said that his power had been limited.

“Our control there is on a voluntary basis. Vendors do not answer my number because they know I’m not the one paying them,” he told the three-member panel.

Friend spoke to the panel, headed by former Supreme Court justice Miriam Naor, almost four months after the crush at Mount Meron left 45 people dead. The April 29 incident during the Jewish festival of Lag B’Omer 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 and the dangers of overcrowding.

In June, the government approved the formation of an independent state commission of inquiry — composed of Naor, former Bnei Brak mayor Rabbi Mordechai Karelitz and former Israel Defense Forces planning chief Maj. Gen. (res.) Shlomo Yanai — to investigate safety shortcomings at the site.

Friend served as the manager of the grave of second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, which is situated on Mount Meron, drawing enormous crowds each year on Lag B’Omer. Friend claimed that he was not involved with the planning of events at the site on Lag B’Omer, and did not have the authority to intervene.

“Before the celebrations, I received a phone call from Yisrael Deri (the head of the northern branch of the National Center for the Development of Holy Places), who told me that he is in charge of the site’s budget for the celebrations,” Friend said.

“I begged, but I was not even invited to a single meeting,” he added.

Former chief of the Supreme Court Miriam Naor (center) heads the Meron Disaster Inquiry Committee in Jerusalem, on August 23, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

He also told the panel that on the night of the tragedy he was not near the site of the crush, but near a separate section intended for women at the gender-segregated event.

“There was terrible overcrowding, women were pushed against each other, police officers rescued children. Miraculously, no disaster occurred there,” Friend said.

The commission’s proceedings kicked off on Sunday 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 were 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.” He noted that barriers to limit entry were not used as they could result in disastrous bottlenecks.

On Monday, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites told the panel he didn’t know the narrow passageway that was the site of the crush was dangerous.

Israeli rescue forces and police stand on the stairs where a mass of people were crushed to death and injured during the celebrations of the Lag B’Omer holiday on Mount Meron, in northern Israel on April 30, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

In addition to Lavi, Rabinovitch, and Friend, witnesses summoned by the panel include former Israel Police deputy commissioner Alon Asur; Yosef Schwinger, head of the National Center for the Development of Holy Places; and Deri, the head of the northern branch of the National Center for the Development of Holy Places.

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.

Amy Spiro and AP contributed to this report.

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