'If I had felt I was to blame, I would have packed it in'

Police chief says won’t quit following Meron disaster: ‘My conscience is clear’

Kobi Shabtai says he’s ‘content with his actions’ a week after crush that killed 45, says he did the best with what he had; authorities yet to begin collecting testimonies

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, right, meets with press near Damascus Gate in Jerusalem on April 24, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, right, meets with press near Damascus Gate in Jerusalem on April 24, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai said in a Friday interview that he has no plans to resign following the deadly crush a week earlier that killed at least 45 during festivities at Mount Meron.

“In this specific case, we have an issue that needs to be examined by external authorities. I am content that I did everything with the tools I had at my disposal,” he told the Kan public radio.

Shabtai told the station he welcomes a national commission of inquiry into the disaster, which he says would mean the police wouldn’t be the only authority under investigation.

Later on Friday Shabtai told Channel 13 news: “I am not shirking responsibility.” He added that “If I had felt I was to blame, I would have packed it in. My conscience is clear that I did everything I could with the tools I had at hand, in the conditions that existed, and I did it in the best manner possible — I and all of the Israel Police.”

As of now, a week after the disaster, those involved in the incident have not yet been summoned for questioning, and no testimonies have been collected.

On Thursday, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced that a joint investigative team from the Israel Police and the Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department will lead the probe into the deadly crush at Lag B’Omer celebrations at Mount Meron.

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

In a statement, Mandelblit said the team will also be assisted by the State Attorney’s Office, including the stand-in state prosecutor, Amit Aisman.

“It is difficult to overstate the severity of the disaster that occurred on Mount Meron and therefore everything must be done to strive to discover the truth through an effective and efficient investigation,” Mandelblit said.

The disaster which began at 1 a.m. on Friday morning near the gravesite of the second-century sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, took place when huge crowds of ultra-Orthodox pilgrims were making their way along a narrow walkway with a slippery metal flooring that ended in flights of stairs. People began to slip and fall, others fell upon them, and a calamitous crush ensued.

Forty-five people died and more than 150 were hurt.

The site, the second-most visited religious site in Israel after the Western Wall, has become an extraterritorial zone of sorts, 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.

Ultra-orthodox Jews light candles for the 45 victims who were killed in a crush at Mount Meron, on May 6, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

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.

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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