Senior police officers organize call for state inquiry

Police chief backs local commander in charge of Meron site at time of tragedy

Kobi Shabtai says there was ‘full cooperation’ between himself and Northern District chief Shimon Lavi in planning event that ended in deaths of 45 people, including children

Northern District Commander Shimon Lavi (R) and Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai (R) at Mount Meron ahead of the tragedy, April 29, 2021 (Israel Police)
Northern District Commander Shimon Lavi (R) and Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai (R) at Mount Meron ahead of the tragedy, April 29, 2021 (Israel Police)

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai on Saturday gave his support to the commander who oversaw the arrangements for the celebrations at Mount Meron which ended in tragedy when 45 people were killed in a deadly crush.

Associates of Shabtai told Hebrew-language news outlets that there was “full cooperation” between the police chief and Northern District Commander Shimon Lavi.

“Anyone who tries to put a wedge between [myself and Lavi] is misrepresenting the truth and does injustice to the [police] force,” Shabtai reportedly said.

According to the unnamed associates, Shabtai said that he and Lavi worked together on both the planning and execution of the event on Thursday night.

Shabtai has reportedly spoken with Lavi on the matter and told him that he has his full support.

People stand at the scene of a crush that took place during a religious gathering overnight in the northern Israeli town of Meron on April 30, 2021 (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

The comments came after Lavi said Friday morning that he was accountable for the disaster and would cooperate with any investigation.

“I bear overall responsibility, for better or worse, and am ready for any investigation,” he told reporters hours after the tragedy.

Shabtai’s backing of Lavi came a day after the Ynet news site said the police commander’s “circle” was trying to pin responsibility for the disaster on the district chief.

“It was the northern district commander who approved the plan and it was he who also took responsibility,” Shabtai’s confidantes were quoted as saying.

On Saturday Ynet reported a groundswell of support for Lavi from police officers across the country, with many officers changing their Facebook profile photos to pictures of the northern district commander with the words “we’re all Shimon Lavi” written on them.

Current and retired officers were angered over what they saw as attempts to have Lavi take the fall, according to the report.

“If my fellow police officers have balls, we’ll all stand alongside the northern district commander who with his body is protecting officers,” an unnamed officer reportedly wrote in a private Facebook group.

At the same time, former senior police officers stressed that Lavi, and the police in general, were not responsible for safety at the site, and that Israel Police does not oversee all arrangements for the annual event. “The police are not in charge of safety” at Meron, Shlomo Aharonishki, a former police commissioner, told Channel 12 news on Saturday night, reinforcing characterizations of Meron as a kind of extraterritorial facility where ultra-Orthodox organizers have ultimate control.

Bodybags at the scene of the Mount Meron disaster, April 30, 2021 (Screenshot)

Aharonishki, who helmed Israel Police in 2001-4, said there were “sighs of relief” every year that the annual Lag B’Omer festivities passed off without fatal incident. He and the former police Northern District commander Dan Ronen told Channel 12 there were abiding concerns about the inadequate infrastructure at the facility, including at the huge tiered outdoor stands where vast numbers of participants gather. “The first priority is a state commission of inquiry,” Aharonishki said. “The next disaster [at Meron] is already on its way.”

There is an unfortunate tradition in Israel, the day after a disaster, to go out with “a gallows and a guillotine,” and quickly “find someone to pin blame on,” said Aharonishki. The failure at Meron was deep and protracted, and needed thorough investigation and a complete overhaul of the arrangements for all activities there, he said.

Ronen said senior ex-police officers are organizing a formal plea for a state commission of inquiry, and that it was “a mistake” by the attorney general to have ordered an investigation by the Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department, since this automatically targeted the police for blame.

Meanwhile, investigators were continuing to gather evidence at the scene of the mass-casualty event on Saturday as focus started to turn toward the matter of who was to blame for the packed conditions that led to the disaster.

As the initial shock and horror over the deadly crush began to subside, stark questions began to be directed at political, civil and law enforcement officials involved in planning, approving and securing the event, amid talk of a potential state commission of inquiry to thoroughly investigate the incident. Two state comptroller reports highlighting that the Mount Meron site was radically unprepared for the huge numbers attending the annual festivities, published in 2008 and 2011, were ignored, as was a 2016 police report that sounded similar warnings.

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

On Friday night, multiple reports in Hebrew media outlets indicated that there had been immense pressure by religious lawmakers ahead of the festivities to ensure that there would be no limits placed on the number of attendees.

Two investigations into the failings that led to the deaths are set to move into high gear after Sunday’s day of national mourning for the victims — by the Police Internal Investigations Department, into police failings, and by the police into the failures of other authorities regarding the event.

Sixteen people remained hospitalized on Saturday morning, with a number of them in critical or serious condition.

However, there has been an improvement in the condition of an 11-year-old boy from Bnei Brak who was seriously injured at Meron, the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa announced. A spokesperson for the hospital said the child was sedated and put on a ventilator when he arrived at the medical center on Friday, but has now regained consciousness.

With 45 dead, including a number of children, and dozens injured, the disaster in the early hours of Friday appeared to the worst peacetime tragedy in Israel’s history, surpassing the death toll of 44 from the 2010 Mount Carmel forest fire.

Mourners carry the body of Shraga Gestetner, a Canadian singer who died during Lag BaOmer celebrations at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, at his funeral in Jerusalem on Friday, April 30, 2021. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Thirty-two of the victims were identified Friday at the Abu Kabir Forensic Center in Tel Aviv, with 22 released to relatives for burial.

The institute halted the identification process on Friday evening, following a ruling from the chief rabbi that it could not continue on the Sabbath. It was set to resume on Saturday evening.

The tragedy occurred when more than 100,000 people were attending the annual gathering on Thursday night in the northern Galilee, which includes visits to the gravesite of the second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai and massive bonfires on the mountainside.

A bonfire lighting ceremony for the Toldot Aharon Hasidic sect was being held at the pilgrimage area, close to Bar Yochai’s tomb.

As the dense crowds began to exit, a narrow, sloping walkway on the exit route became immensely congested, people slipped on the metal floor and others fell on them, precipitating fatal crushing, exacerbated by a reported police barrier at the bottom of the incline.

Pictures from the scene showed bodies covered in blankets and bags as well as the personal effects and shoes of those trapped in the crush.

The site, the second most visited religious site in Israel after the Western Wall, appears to have become a kind of extraterritorial zone, multiple reports indicated Friday, with separate ultra-Orthodox sects organizing their own events, and their own access arrangements, no overall supervision, and police routinely pressured by government ministers and ultra-Orthodox politicians not to object.

A framework drawn up by Health Ministry officials, police and other government officials to restrict this year’s event to 9,000 participants was agreed by all parties, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, the Health Ministry’s head of public medicine, said a day before the event. But it was not put into place, she said, “because no one would take responsibility for enforcement.”

“It’s shameful,” she said. “The Ministry of Religious Affairs tries to get the police to take responsibility, and they hand it back to the Ministry of Religious Affairs.”

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