State comptroller warned for years of overcrowding danger at Meron site

Reports in 2008, 2011 raised concerns; internal police document in 2016 said site was chaotically managed, couldn’t safely accommodate numbers that attend annual Lag B’Omer event

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews celebrate the lighting of a bonfire during celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer on Mt. Meron in northern Israel on April 29, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews celebrate the lighting of a bonfire during celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer on Mt. Meron in northern Israel on April 29, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The state comptroller warned on at least two occasions that the site at the Mount Meron compound was dangerously ill-equipped for the hundreds of thousands who regularly attend Lag B’Omer celebrations there, while an internal police report in 2016 said that the chaos in the site’s management could lead to disaster.

At least 45 people were crushed to death and more than 150 people hurt, including many in critical condition, in a tragedy at a mass gathering to celebrate the Lag B’Omer holiday at the Mount Meron site in the early hours of Friday morning.

A 2008 state comptroller report had previously warned of “systemic failure at the Rashbi [Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai] compound” at Meron due to “many different authorities all involved in its management,” noting that it was a chaotic situation that would lead to harm to the holy site as well as endangering worshipers.

In an additional report from 2011, it was once again emphasized that the site was underprepared for receiving hundreds of thousands of people.

“The existing situation should not be allowed to continue — including the neglected structure where [certain] groups do as they wish, to the abandonment of a site of great importance, both nationally and religiously,” the state comptroller said.

Israeli security officials and rescuers carry the bodies of victims who died during Lag B’Omer celebrations at Mount Meron in northern Israel, April 30, 2021 (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

The various reports revealed that by standard police safety regulations for public gatherings, the site should not have been permitted to hold more than about 15,000 people. Officials have estimated the crowds at the site on Thursday evening at over 100,000, a number that was significantly lower than in many previous years.

An internal police document also warned of the potential for chaos and disaster at the Meron site.

Commander Ilan Mor, head of the operational branch of the national traffic police, produced a report in 2016 titled, “Meron celebrations: Erasing the writing on the wall.”

The document analyzed past tragedies caused by overcrowding at public events, including disasters and near-disasters at Meron itself, and concluded that the infrastructure at the holy site could not safely accommodate the numbers of worshipers that attended each year at Lag B’Omer.

In the report, Mor called to limit the number of people attending and to appoint a single organizer to manage the site, instead of allowing each Hasidic sect to run its own area.

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

The attorney general announced on Friday that the Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department will immediately open a probe into possible police negligence in the fatal stampede.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, in a statement, said “it was decided that the PIID will immediately examine whether there are suspicions of criminality by police in the tragedy in Meron.”

Mandelblit added that at the initial stage, testimony would not be taken from police officers who were present at the scene.

Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, who oversees the police and was present at the event on Thursday just a few hours before the deadly stampede, called for an independent inquiry.

“It is clear an independent examination of all aspects related to the planning of the event will be needed, [including the] preparation, responsibilities, infrastructure and the like,” Ohana said.

The tragedy occurred 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 stampede and fatal crushing domino effect. Unaware of the disaster unfolding, police blocked the exit from the walkway for a time, eyewitnesses said.

Most Popular
read more: