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Meron probe to target politicians, police officials, religious figures – report

Government will allocate NIS 6 million to commission of inquiry expected to investigate behavior of former ministers Amir Ohana, Aryeh Deri, and Yaakov Litzman

Israelis light candles for the 45 victims who were killed in a crush at Mount Meron during the Lag B'Omer celebrations, at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. May 2, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Israelis light candles for the 45 victims who were killed in a crush at Mount Meron during the Lag B'Omer celebrations, at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. May 2, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

A formal taskforce charged with investigating the April 30 disaster at Mount Meron, which left 45 people dead, will investigate the behavior and decision-making of former public security minister Amir Ohana, former interior minister Aryeh Deri, and former housing minister Yaakov Litzman, who all were in office at the time of the incident, Channel 12 reported Sunday.

While Deri and Litzman had no direct responsibilities for the Mount Meron site, they reportedly pressured the relevant authorities to allow the event to proceed without limitations.

The report said that other officials who are expected to be probed by the taskforce include Israel Police Commissioner Yaakov Shabtai and Northern District Police Chief Shimon Lavi. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, chairman of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, who was selected to lead a committee in charge of the site last year, is also expected to be investigated, alongside Yossi Schwinger, head of the National Center for the Development of Holy Places, for not adequately ensuring the safety of the site.

Earlier on Sunday, the cabinet approved the proposal published last week by Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman to establish a governmental commission of inquiry into the disaster.

The taskforce’s chair, as well as its members, will be appointed by Esther Hayut, the chief justice of the Supreme Court. The cabinet added that the decision on the makeup of the committee will take into consideration “religious character” when selecting members.

The commission, which will have a budget of NIS 6 million ($1.83 million), will investigate — in coordination with the attorney general and other ongoing parallel investigations — how the disaster unfolded, and probe the decision-making processes that authorized the event.

According to the proposal from Gantz and Liberman, which was accepted by the cabinet, the mandate of the taskforce will be to investigate “the entirety of professional and legal questions regarding safety procedures at religious rites events and the public venues that host them, particularly events that involve mass participation.” It will also seek to establish the tools “at the disposal of government and other authorities to enable effective and sound usage of venues.”

The cabinet also decided that the Welfare Ministry would assist and accompany the families of the victims in attaining compensation, and that the taskforce would issue interim reports on its progress as needed.

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.

The tragedy occurred on April 30, as thousands celebrating Lag B’Omer at the gravesite of the second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai streamed through a narrow walkway. The passage was covered with metal flooring, which 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.

Several weeks after the disaster, two people were killed, and more than 150 hurt, when a bleacher collapsed under celebrants in a Givat Ze’ev synagogue just before the start of the Shavuot festival.

“This commission of inquiry is our moral obligation to the Israeli public and to the families who lost loved ones,” said Gantz on Sunday. “We must make sure that a tragedy of this nature never repeats itself. The taskforce’s purpose is, above anything else, to save human life.”

Liberman said the establishment of the commission of inquiry marks “the turning of a new page without any more coverups at the people’s expense.”

“Now is the time to draw conclusions, to take responsibility and prevent the next disaster,” Liberman added. “That is how a government set on improving the people’s faith in it behaves.”

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who oversaw his first cabinet meeting on Sunday during which the commission was approved, said the decision was critical.

“Forty-five people lost their lives in that awful disaster and the responsibility for learning the lessons and preventing the next disaster is on our shoulders,” Bennett said. “A commission cannot bring back those who have perished, but the government can do everything to prevent unnecessary loss of life in the future.”

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