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'Kobi Shabtai failed,' brother of victim charges

Police chief Shabtai said to have opposed crowd curbs at deadly Meron event

Ex-police commander Alkalai launches scathing attack on commissioner at state panel investigating crush that killed 45 people, sparking calls for Shabtai’s resignation

Israeli Police Chief Kobi Shabtai on January 8, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Israeli Police Chief Kobi Shabtai on January 8, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A retired police commander on Thursday pointed to alleged major missteps by Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai that led to April’s deadly stampede at the Mount Meron Jewish pilgrimage site, sparking calls for Shabtai to resign and backlash by the police chief’s associates.

In explosive testimony before the state commission of inquiry investigating the deadliest civilian disaster in the country’s history, Amnon Alkalai said that — as head of the police’s operations division at the time — he had sought to impose crowd caps at Mount Meron and warned of an impending disaster.

The April 29 incident left 45 people crushed to death at an event that drew some 100,000 worshippers, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, despite longstanding warnings about the safety of the site and the dangers of overcrowding.

The festival took place as COVID-19 cases in Israel were reaching their lowest levels in a year, leading the government to ease restrictions on gatherings.

“I wanted there to be crowd limitations using COVID-19 restrictions,” Alkalai said, similar to curbs that were in effect at the time in stadiums, limiting crowds to 10,000 people. He suggested limiting each bonfire lighting to 3,000 people, “or else you can prepare for a mass-casualty event.”

But Alkalai said that when he expressed that opinion during police discussions ahead of the event, Shabtai “immediately rejected that and said it was black or white. Either the site is completely open or completely closed. I thought that was wrong.”

Amnon Alkalai, former head of the Israel Police Operations Division, is seen after testifying in the Meron disaster inquiry commission in Jerusalem, October 14, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The former police commander told the government panel that Shabtai had told ministers ahead of the event: “If there is a commission of inquiry, don’t come to me.”

Alkalai said he since decided to leave the police after 30 years due to “flawed” and “unprofessional” decision-making in general, and particularly regarding the Meron disaster.

Later on Thursday, the brother of one of the victims told Channel 12 news that “the testimonies in the commission of inquiry should worry every Israeli citizen due to lack of caring for human lives.”

Yisrael Diskind, the brother of victim Simha Bonim, said Alkalai’s testimony was “horrifying and concerning.”

Screen capture from video of the disaster during Lag B’Omer celebrations at Mount Meron, on April 30, 2021. (Channel 12)

“Until now, the police commissioner slept calmly at night,” said Diskind. “Shabtai must go home. There is a person who knew without a doubt that a disaster was going to happen. Kobi Shabtai failed, he is supposed to show responsibility and leadership, and make the difficult decision to go home.”

Associates of Shabtai, speaking with Channel 13 news, said they had expected “strong words” from Alkalai but hadn’t expected the testimony to be what they termed a “suicide attack” on him.

The report said Shabtai, who has come to understand the gravity of the accusations against him, recently hired lawyers Oded Gazit and Eliram Bakal to represent him to the commission.

The report, citing no source, said Shabtai intends to argue before the panel that he wasn’t alone in supporting the Meron pilgrimage being held, saying Northern District Commander Shimon Lavi had also backed it. He will also purportedly say that he lacked the power to limit crowds at the site without any rules passed on the matter by the government, and essentially had no choice but to allow the event to proceed.

Amnon Alkalai, former head of the Israel Police Operations Division, is seen after testifying in the Meron disaster inquiry commission in Jerusalem, October 14, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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

In June, the government approved the formation of an independent state commission of inquiry — headed by former Supreme Court justice Miriam Naor, and rounded out by former Bnei Brak mayor Rabbi Mordechai Karelitz and former Israel Defense Forces planning chief Maj. Gen. (res.) Shlomo Yanai — to investigate safety shortcomings at the site that led to the deadly disaster.

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