Police chief said to ask attorney general for state inquiry into Meron disaster

Kobi Shabtai reportedly says he hopes investigation will be free from the ‘pressures’ of various bodies who operate site of religious festival where 45 killed in crush

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

Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai has asked Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit for either a state commission of inquiry into the Mount Meron disaster or some other form of official investigation of the incident last week, during which dozens of people were crushed to death, the Kan public broadcaster reported Wednesday.

There have been increasing demands for a state investigation of the tragedy during Lag B’Omer celebrations last week, in which 45 people — including numerous children and teenagers — were killed and over 150 were injured.

Shabtai made the request on Monday, according to the report. The top officer has stressed in private conversations that he wants an official probe that will be “free from all the pressures of those active there [at Mount Meron] and that there will be teeth to implement… that someone takes responsibility,” Kan said, without citing sources.

Shabtai is said to have complained privately that police could not have prevented the tragedy because even if the force had not given permission for the festival to go ahead it would have been held anyway, and if officers had tried to limit attendance, violent clashes would have broken out in protest.

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.

He also has defended his authorization of the police plans for the festival. Ultimate responsibility for what happened, he has reportedly said, “is a matter for an inquiry to decide.”

Shabtai has publicly defended officers and their handling of the event, while former police chiefs have said that the force is pressured each year into allowing the festival to go ahead.

On Monday senior police officers held a meeting during which Shabtai expressed his interest in a state commission of inquiry, a position also backed by Northern District Commander Shimon Lavi who is responsible for the Meron site. At the gathering, Shabtai said he would send a letter later that day to Mandelblit asking for the commission to be formed, Channel 12 news reported at the time.

However, during the meeting, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana was said to have taken both officers aside, separately, for a private conversation. What was said between the minister and the two police officers was not reported, but no letter was sent by Shabtai to Mandelblit, according to the report.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks at an event at Bar Ilan University, March 4, 2020. (Flash90)

Later in the day, Mandelblit ruled there was no legal obstacle to prevent the current caretaker government from forming a state commission of inquiry.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to Hebrew media reports, fears the political repercussions of such an inquiry. Though political leaders, including Netanyahu, have urged a thorough investigation, so far there has been no move to set up a commission of inquiry.

State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman has launched his own probe of the Meron incident, although it is not an official state inquiry. Englman on Wednesday visited Meron to review the site as the investigation kicked off.

“I think it is very important that the review be focused and after that we will do our work in a professional manner,” he told media.

The Israel Police is also investigating Israel’s deadliest civilian disaster, and the Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department is examining the police response.

Israeli rescue forces and police at the scene after a mass fatality scene during the celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag Baomer on Mt. Meron, in northern Israel on April 30, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The tragedy occurred early Friday, as thousands streamed through a narrow walkway that 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.

Focus is increasingly being directed on the organization of the annual Lag B’Omer events at Mount Meron in adjacent compounds on the side of the mountain around the gravesite of the 2nd-century sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

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.

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 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some 100,000 ultra-Orthodox pilgrims ultimately attended the event. A framework drawn up by the Health Ministry, in consultation with other government officials, police and others, would have limited the event to 9,000 participants but was not implemented.

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