Police said to question 2 top Hasidic figures over Mount Meron disaster
Toldos Aharon officials reportedly suspected of negligent homicide over event where 45 people were crushed to death; cabinet has okayed state commission of inquiry
Two senior ultra-Orthodox officials were reportedly questioned under caution by police this week in an investigation of the April 30 disaster at Mount Meron, which left 45 people dead in Israel’s worst-ever civilian disaster.
Those questioned were “operations officers” for the Toldos Aharon Hasidic sect who had a major part in organizing Toldos Aharon’s compound at the Lag B’Omer event in Meron, where the disaster happened, the Kan public broadcaster reported Monday.
The report said the pair had been questioned Sunday and Monday for many hours and were suspected of negligent homicide.
It was the first time Hasidic figures involved in the organization of the event were being interrogated, the report said. Police have questioned some 20 people in total, including security and safety staff and officials in the National Center for the Development of Holy Places.
However, the future of the police probe is unclear after the new government led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Sunday approved a proposal by Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman to establish a governmental commission of inquiry into the tragedy.
The taskforce’s chair, as well as its members, will be appointed by Esther Hayut, the chief justice of the Supreme Court.
The commission, which will have a budget of NIS 6 million ($1.83 million), will investigate — in coordination with the attorney general and other ongoing parallel investigations — how the disaster unfolded, and probe the decision-making processes that authorized the event.
According to the proposal from Gantz and Liberman, which was accepted by the cabinet, the mandate of the taskforce will be to investigate “the entirety of professional and legal questions regarding safety procedures at religious rites events and the public venues that host them, particularly events that involve mass participation.” It will also seek to establish the tools “at the disposal of government and other authorities to enable effective and sound usage of venues.”
The formal taskforce will reportedly investigate the behavior and decision-making of former public security minister Amir Ohana, former interior minister Aryeh Deri and former housing minister Yaakov Litzman, who all were in office at the time of the incident.
While Deri and Litzman had no direct responsibility for the Mount Meron site, they reportedly pressured the relevant authorities to allow the event to proceed without limitations on the number of participants.
According to Channel 12 news, other officials who are expected to be probed by the taskforce include Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai and Northern District Police Chief Shimon Lavi. Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, chairman of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, who was selected to lead a committee in charge of the site last year, is also expected to be investigated, alongside Yossi Schwinger, head of the National Center for the Development of Holy Places, for not adequately ensuring the safety of the site.
The tragedy occurred on April 30, as thousands celebrating Lag B’Omer at the gravesite of the second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai streamed through a narrow walkway. The passage was covered with metal flooring, which 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.
Bennett, who oversaw his first cabinet meeting on Sunday, during which the commission was approved, said the decision was critical.
“Forty-five people lost their lives in that awful disaster and the responsibility for learning the lessons and preventing the next disaster is on our shoulders,” Bennett said. “A commission cannot bring back those who have perished, but the government can do everything to prevent unnecessary loss of life in the future.”