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Police chief blames deadly Meron crush on engineering failure, denies responsibility

Kobi Shabtai rejects claim he ignored fresh warnings of overcrowding at the site ahead of the disaster, in which 45 people were killed and over 100 injured

Police chief Kobi Shabtai ahead of his testimony before the Meron disaster commission, in Jerusalem, on April 11, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Police chief Kobi Shabtai ahead of his testimony before the Meron disaster commission, in Jerusalem, on April 11, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel Police chief Kobi Shabtai testified on Monday before a commission into the Lag B’Omer tragedy at Mount Meron, and maintained that he was not responsible for the crush in which 45 people were killed in April 2021.

Shabtai said that, ultimately, the root cause of the disaster was an engineering failure and that it was therefore not his fault.

“I’m not ignoring the issue of overcrowding, but the failure begins with an engineering failure — similar to the Maccabiah disaster and the Versailles disaster,” Shabtai said, referring to a bridge collapse that killed four people in 1997, and a wedding hall collapse in 2001 that killed 23 people.

“Without the engineering failure, no disaster would have happened,” he said.

The tragedy occurred as thousands of people celebrating Lag B’Omer 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.

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)

Asked whether he knew about the engineering issue at the walkway in advance, Shabtai responded: “I am not a safety engineer.”

“The police chief is not going to go and check every bridge, every crossing and every path. Can I set a level of slipperiness? Incline?” he said.

Shabtai was present at the site on the evening of the disaster.

“Just because the police served as the responsible adult in the room, when nobody else would, does not make me responsible. To me, it is the National Center for the Development of Holy Sites that is responsible for the place,” Shabtai said.

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

“I knew that nobody wanted to take responsibility,” he said. “So I was involved so that the event did not fall to pieces.”

Shabtai said he’d make the same decisions again, were he called upon to do so.

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

“An attempt to present the discussion as dramatic and tumultuous is not the reality. It was a professional and fact-based discussion. At the meeting, [Alkalai] did not say anything out of the ordinary, but responded to the plan that was presented,” Shabtai said.

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.

Shabtai was then presented with the minutes from the meeting in which Alkalai warned of the dangers of massive overcrowding at the event.

“He did mention the issue of overcrowding at the meeting, but it was not a new thing or a special addition. The issue was already at the heart of the original plan. He did not present an alternative plan, neither during nor after the discussion,” Shabtai said.

In his testimony to the commission last year, Alkalai pointed to alleged major missteps by Shabtai that led to the deadly crush.

Alkalai said he had sought to impose crowd caps at Mount Meron due to the COVID-19 outbreak and had warned of an impending disaster.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews gather at the grave site of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai at Mount Meron in northern Israel on April 29, 2021, as they celebrate the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer (JALAA MAREY / AFP)

Shabtai on Monday confirmed that he had opposed imposing virus-related restrictions.

“For me, an attempt to enforce entry restrictions could have led to disaster. If Green Passes needed to be checked, a bottleneck could form,” he said.

Shabtai said that, ultimately, the decision not to impose restrictions was made by politicians and the virus czar.

Last year, Health Ministry director-general Nachman Ash told the commission that no government body had been willing to accept responsibility for ensuring COVID-19 policies were upheld during the annual event.

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