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Netanyahu summoned to testify before panel probing deadly Meron crush

Opposition head to be commission’s final witness; if found to bear any responsibility for crush that killed 45, he may get warning letter during upcoming expected election season

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Internal Security Minister Amir Ohana (R)  visit the site of an overnight fatal crush during a religious gathering at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, on April 30, 2021. (Ronen ZVULUN / POOL / AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Internal Security Minister Amir Ohana (R) visit the site of an overnight fatal crush during a religious gathering at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, on April 30, 2021. (Ronen ZVULUN / POOL / AFP)

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu received a summons on Sunday to testify before the state commission of inquiry into the 2021 disaster at Mount Meron, where 45 people were killed in a crush despite repeated warnings that it was unsafe for a large crowd to attend the celebrations at the holy site.

According to the Haaretz daily, Netanyahu, who was prime minister at the time of the disaster, will be the final witness at the commission. The probe will hear testimony from 141 people in total.

Netanyahu is set to appear in person at a hearing on July 10, following testimony from Meir Ben-Shabbat, national security adviser at the time of the disaster, and the director of the 2022 festivities, Zvi Tessler.

According to Haaretz, if Netanyahu is found to bear any responsibility for the disaster, he may be sent a warning letter — likely during the upcoming expected Knesset election season.

The committee may also issue statements regarding the conduct of officials involved in the events and the decision-making ahead of it, and could even recommend that they be removed from office.

Numerous senior officials and ministers have testified to the committee in recent months, with some of them saying that Netanyahu was involved in the decision not to restrict the number of people allowed access to the site on the evening of the disaster, Haaretz said.

Two of the former ministers who testified before the committee — then-public security minister Amir Ohana and then-interior minister Aryeh Deri — said that Netanyahu held discussions at which it was decided that there should be an “open mountain” policy, despite concerns about overcrowding and worries that COVID-19 restrictions could not be enforced, the report said.

MK Aryeh Deri testifies at the state commission of inquiry into the 2021 disaster at Mount Meron, June 2, 2022 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Deri told the commission that his senior adviser pressured police to hold discussions on not limiting the number of participants because Netanyahu wanted to “calm the ultra-Orthodox” who were angered by the potential restrictions on attendance, the Ynet news site said.

According to a recording leaked to Channel 13 news and aired earlier this month, a number of planning and safety officials expressed serious concerns over the wellbeing of pilgrims at Lag B’Omer festivities at Mount Meron last year, days before the deadly crush at the event.

The recording of the meeting at national police headquarters, also attended by Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, Northern District Commander Shimon Lavi, and other top officials, had not been provided to the state commission of inquiry into the tragedy, for reasons unknown.

At a meeting on April 22, 2021, Ohana pushed police officials to allow more people to attend the event, even as others expressed concerns.

Rescue forces and police at the scene after a mass fatality scene during the celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer on Mount Meron, in northern Israel on April 30, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

At the meeting, multiple police officials are heard warning of the dangers of crowding, and the need to stand up to pressure from ultra-Orthodox figures pushing for attendance caps to be raised or scrapped.

Ohana then expresses hope that police will respond to the higher number of potential participants by allowing more groups in and doubling allowed attendance to 20,000, “to shrink the gap between what is being announced and what is actually happening.”

Ohana’s Likud party is in a political alliance with ultra-Orthodox Shas and UTJ. According to reports, requests from religious figures from various sects to increase the numbers of pilgrims allowed at the event made their way to Netanyahu, Deri, Ohana and others. This is believed to have led to pressure on police to allow as many people as possible to freely attend.

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai (L) and Public Security Minister Amir Ohana at the bonfire lighting celebrations for Lag B’Omer, hours before the tragedy, April 30, 2021 (Israel Police)

Shabtai, the police commissioner, testified before the commission on the Lag B’Omer tragedy in April this year and maintained that he was not responsible for the crush, blaming it instead on faulty engineering of the slippery walkway.

He also rejected accusations from former police’s operations division head Amnon Alkalai that he had ignored warnings of the dangers of overcrowding at the site.

This year’s event took place under heavy restrictions compared to the past, in order to avoid another stampede.

Haredi leaders criticized this year’s limitations as overly restrictive, and some ultra-Orthodox worshipers broke through police barricades to enter the tomb site, nearly trampling the people inside.

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