'A Greek tragedy, whose end was known from the start'

State inquiry blames Netanyahu, but does not sanction him, for deadly 2021 Meron crush

Commission says there was ‘reasonable basis’ to conclude PM knew site was dangerous; also names Ohana, Shabtai as responsible for disaster in which 45 men and boys died

Israeli rescue forces and police at the scene after a deadly crush during celebrations on Mount Meron in northern Israel on April 30, 2021 (David Cohen/Flash90)
Israeli rescue forces and police at the scene after a deadly crush during celebrations on Mount Meron in northern Israel on April 30, 2021 (David Cohen/Flash90)

A state commission of inquiry has named Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as one of a number of officials responsible for the 2021 Meron disaster, in which 45 people were killed in a crush at the hilltop gravesite of a second-century sage in northern Israel.

Presenting its findings after two and a half years of work, the committee also said that Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana, who served as public security minister at the time of the disaster, and police chief Kobi Shabtai, along with several other officials all bore personal responsibility for Israel’s deadliest peacetime disaster.

While the inquest said that it wouldn’t propose sanctions for Netanyahu due to his position, it was scathing in its assessment of the premier, saying that it was reasonable to assume that the prime minister knew that the site was dangerous after the alarm had been raised by multiple official bodies over the years.

“There is a reasonable basis to conclude that Netanyahu knew that the site of Rashbi’s grave was improperly dealt with for years, and that it was liable to be a danger to the masses that visit the site, especially on Lag B’Omer,” the committee said, referring to the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai where the disaster occurred.

“Even if, in the name of caution, we assume Netanyahu didn’t have concrete knowledge of the matter, he should have known about it after the issue was brought to his office many times,” said the report by the commission, headed by retired judge Dvora Berliner.

“Therefore Netanyahu’s claim that his attention wasn’t demanded cannot be accepted.”

The report said the premier was ultimately responsible for the needs of the site — either proactively or via the mechanisms of the state — and said that lessons had not been learned from the investigations into the 2010 Carmel forest fire that claimed 44 lives.

Then prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (C) visits the scene of the disaster with police chief Kobi Shabtai (R) on Mount Meron, in northern Israel on April 30, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

“Netanyahu did not act as expected of a prime minister to correct this state of affairs [at Meron], despite the fact that the issue was the focus of serious reports from the state comptroller, and involved several ministries and was brought to the government table on several occasions over the years,” the commission said.

Regarding Ohana, who served as public security minister at the time of the disaster, the report said he should be barred from serving as national security minister (the new iteration of the position) in the future.

Ohana said in 2021 that while he was responsible for Meron, that did not mean that he was to blame for what had happened.

Public Security Minister Amir Ohana at the lighting of a bonfire during the celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer on Mt. Meron in northern Israel on April 29, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The 320-page report also pointed the finger at police chief Shabtai, and said that under normal circumstances the committee would recommend that he be terminated. However, due to the ongoing war against Hamas, it recommended that the government determine the correct date for his term to end.

In response, the police issued a statement saying that Shabtai respected the findings of the inquiry. Noting that at the start of the year, the government asked him to stay on in his role due to the war, the statement said Shabtai would leave his position whenever the government determines the time to be right.

Yaakov Avitan, who was religious services minister at the time, was found personally responsible as well in the report. The commission recommended he not be made a minister again.

Forty-five men and boys were killed on April 30, 2021, in a crush at the hilltop gravesite of second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on Mount Meron in northern Israel during the annual Lag B’Omer celebrations, after 100,000 worshipers, mostly members of the ultra-Orthodox community, crowded into the holy site despite longstanding warnings about the safety of the complex.

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.

Among the findings of the commission was the idea that officials should have known a disaster of this type was only a matter of time and worked to fix the problems instead of ignoring them, comparing the saga to a “Greek tragedy, whose end was known from the start.”

“The writing was on the wall well before the disaster, written in big block letters, in a clear, sharp way, but were not paid attention to… Many of the findings in the report were open and known to all. The terrible result that it could lead to was known,” the commission said.

The commission, established in June 2021 by the Bennett-Lapid government and headed by Berliner after the death of former Supreme Court chief justice Miriam Naor, heard testimony from Netanyahu as well as numerous other officials, and received documents from relevant ministries and government agencies to determine the failures that led to Israel’s worst-ever civilian disaster.

Netanyahu denied responsibility for the catastrophe when questioned by Berliner in July 2022 as to why the safety problems with the site were never addressed during his 12-year period in office from 2009 to 2021 despite being raised on numerous occasions.

The location of the deadly 2021 crush in Meron, March 6, 2024 (David Cohen/Flash90)

At the time of the crush, COVID-19 pandemic rules limited outdoor gatherings to just 100 people, which meant the Lag B’Omer event at Mount Meron required special government-approved regulations to allow the larger attendance.

Multiple media reports have said that Netanyahu, the prime minister at the time, was under pressure from ultra-Orthodox political allies to approve the event without limits on attendance, despite long-standing police concerns over crowding safety. He met with ultra-Orthodox lawmakers ahead of the event and agreed to remove all restrictions at the site in exchange for the Haredi parties’ support for selected legislation.

Mount Meron, the site of the grave of second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, is traditionally visited by thousands of ultra-Orthodox worshipers on the anniversary of his death during the holiday of Lag B’Omer, several weeks after Passover.

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