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Ministers to vote Sunday on formation of state inquiry into Meron disaster

Cabinet expected to unanimously approve proposal submitted by Gantz and Liberman earmarking NIS 6 million to investigate Israel’s deadliest peacetime disaster, which killed 45

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.
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 cabinet on Sunday will vote on a proposal to establish a state commission of inquiry into the Lag B’Omer crush at the Mount Meron pilgrimage site in April, which killed 45 people in Israel’s deadliest peacetime disaster.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman submitted the proposal on Thursday. It’s expected to be adopted unanimously by ministers, as all the coalition parties have expressed support for the investigation.

“This is an important step, aimed at preventing similar tragedies in the future,” said Gantz in a tweet on Thursday. Liberman said the investigation will yield “justice for the families and prevent the next disaster in the State of Israel.”

The government will allocate NIS 6 million ($1.8 million) in the 2021 budget for the investigation, which in addition to pinpointing those responsible for the disaster will also offer broad recommendations on how to secure and organize mass religious festivals at Israel’s holy sites in the future, according to the text of the proposal. It will be run by a retired judge, appointed by the Supreme Court president, who will submit their conclusions to the government.

The state commission of inquiry can call witnesses and compel them to testify, though the report and testimony can’t be used as evidence in criminal proceedings, according to the Israel Democracy Institute think tank.

“The advantage of a State Commission of Inquiry is the breadth and depth of the inquiry it conducts, as well as the entrenched practice that the commission makes recommendations that can be both personal and systemic, and that governments not tend to ignore its recommendations, especially ones that are produced against individuals,” according to IDI.

READ: A Hasidic singer, a dozen boys and teens, a father of 11: All 45 Meron victims

The new government sworn in this week, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, has vowed to make the Meron investigation its first order of its business, after Benjamin Netanyahu and his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners held up the formation of such an inquiry.

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)

The Israel Police is investigating the disaster and the Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department (PIID) is examining the police response at the festival. State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman has launched his own probe of the Meron incident, though it falls short of a state commission of inquiry.

Although police are investigating, no arrests have been made and few witnesses have been questioned.

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 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.

Crowd in the moments before the Mt Meron tragedy, April 30, 2021 (Screen grab)

Many of those killed in the tragedy were children and teenagers, and two families lost multiple children. Among the victims were 10 foreign citizens: six Americans, a British national, two Canadians, and an Argentinian.

The site, the second-most visited religious site in Israel after the Western Wall, appears to have become a kind of extraterritorial zone, 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.

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