The panel investigating the deadly 2021 Meron disaster released a letter of warning Tuesday, alerting a number of former and current senior officials, including former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, to their potential responsibility for Israel’s worst-ever civil disaster.
In addition to Netanyahu, former public security minister Amir Ohana, Israel Police Chief Kobi Shabtai and former Northern District Police chief Shimon Lavi also received warnings.
The April 2021 tragedy occurred as thousands of people celebrating the Lag B’Omer festival at the gravesite of the second-century sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai streamed through a narrow walkway. Some people fell on the walkway and down a flight of stairs at its end, toppling onto those below and precipitating a fatal domino effect. The crush killed 45 and injured at least 150.
According to the document, the warnings were issued so that “officials that are liable to be negatively impacted by the inquiry’s work or findings… will have a chance to hear the claims against them and offer a reply, so that the panel’s investigation can reach the truth.”
The warning said that as former prime minister, Netanyahu “knew or should have known” that the Meron pilgrimage site was heavily neglected and a danger to the massive crowds that visit it annually.
“Netanyahu did not act as expected of a prime minister to fix anything, even though the issue had been raised in serious reports by the State Comptroller,” the letter said, adding that the prime minister “did not ensure effective monitoring of the government’s handling of the matter,” and chose not to implement the recommendations of previous governments.
Testifying before the committee last month, Netanyahu denied responsibility for any of the safety measures in place at Meron, and claimed he had only become involved in safety-related discussions from the perspective of reducing the spread of COVID-19, not crowding issues.
Asked by the commission’s Shlomo Yanai whether, as prime minister at the time and for years before, he took “public or moral responsibility for this disaster,” Netanyahu replied: “First of all, I take responsibility for what was in front of me, and that was the epidemiological disaster, and that I prevented… In hindsight, there was a catastrophe… I can’t take responsibility for what I didn’t know… I didn’t know that there was a critical safety problem.”
Tuesday’s warning also criticized Ohana for “not acting as expected” and permitting the event to take place without any limit on crowd numbers.
“Ohana did not give appropriate consideration to the seriousness of the danger, he didn’t ask enough questions and he didn’t request to reassess the original decision to proceed without crowd limits,” despite being warned of the potential for dangerous overcrowding, the panel said.
Similarly, Shabtai, the police chief, received a warning for approving the plan presented to him by the Northern District Police, despite knowing that the site couldn’t cope with the crowd numbers expected at the event and “ignoring the dangers” of overcrowding.
The panel said that concerns over the coronavirus provided Shabtai an opportunity to limit the size of the gathering. But he refused, arguing that blocking people from entry to the site would create an even more dangerous scenario. At the time, coronavirus restrictions limited outdoor gatherings to 100 people, but the Meron pilgrimage received permission to host 100,000 people.
Police Northern District chief Lavi resigned last month, accepting responsibility for the disaster.
Responding to the letter, Netanyahu’s Likud party suggested that the timing of the document’s release was geared to have political consequences in the lead-up to the elections on November 1.
“We share in the great pain of the families. Since the establishment of the state, no investigative committee has ever sent a letter of warning to candidates standing for election. It is unfortunate that the investigative committee established by the Bennett-Lapid government chose to do so,” the Likud said.
Following the commission’s warning, Shabtai sent a letter to police officers saying he had no intention of stepping down.
“This is the crucial moment that obligates us, professionally and ethically, to continue our police actions for the sake of the security of the state and its people,” Shabtai wrote. “I will continue to lead the Israel Police in this complicated period, on the way to achieving our goals in the fight against crime and terror.”
Lawyers representing Shabtai also weighed in after the document’s publication, placing blame on cabinet ministers for the tragedy and telling Channel 12, “We are confident that at the end of the committee’s work it will be established that no blame falls on the police commissioner.”
Defense Minister Benny Gantz tweeted, “We are not looking to cast blame, we are looking for responsibility and to learn lessons. That’s the reason I stood for the establishment of the state inquiry into the Meron disaster.”
The officials warned in the document will face the investigative panel once more, this time with greater clarity as to the accusations being leveled against them.
After that, a final document will be produced by the committee, which will likely contain recommendations aimed at the individuals implicated in the disaster, as well as recommendations for systematic changes.
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.
This year’s Lag B’Omer event took place under strict limitations. Authorities instituted several safety measures meant to avoid a repeat of last year’s disaster, capping crowd sizes, requiring tickets, and changing the way the event was organized.
The government also fixed stairs and other infrastructure around the compound to boost safety precautions.