A police assessment ahead of this year’s Lag B’Omer festivities on Mount Meron warned of the dangers of overcrowding at access points as well as the possibility of structures collapsing, and specifically cited dangers surrounding the exit route where 45 people lost their lives in a crush overnight Thursday-Friday, a TV report said.
Channel 13 reported that the document warned of overcrowding in the Toldot Aharon compound, the scene of the crush, and urged that the exit route be expanded.
“Despite the addition of extra bleachers, it is evident that the area is too small to contain the numbers of celebrants,” the document said. “There, preparations should be made to expand it… and to widen the exit.”
The order was not followed through.
The Meron tragedy — Israel’s deadliest civilian peacetime disaster — occurred at around 1 a.m. Friday, as thousands streamed through a narrow walkway at the southern exit of the Toldot Aharon compound 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 fatal crushing domino effect.
Focus is increasingly being directed on the organization of the annual Lag B’Omer events at Mount Meron in adjacent compounds on the side of the mountain around the gravesite of the 2nd-century sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. The state comptroller and two other bodies are investigating the disaster, amid calls for a full state commission of inquiry.
The site, the second-most visited religious site in Israel after the Western Wall, appears to have become a kind of extraterritorial zone, 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.
The police document noted that the fire-lighting ceremony that occurs in the Toldot Aharon compound is not suitable for the location “since the number of participants is more than the compound can hold.”
According to Channel 13, the ceremony in the compound was permitted to have a maximum of 3,000 participants, whereas in practice there were 12,000.
In general, the document warned, taking into account the space needed between each bonfire at Meron and the number of compounds set up, “we have reached the limit of capacity.”
It also noted that there is particularly dangerous overcrowding at Meron between 12:30 a.m. and 4:30 a.m. on Lag B’Omer.
“Consideration should be given to limiting the number of fires, which will bring down the size of the crowd at the mount,” the police document advised.
Channel 13 reported police had provided the National Center for the Development of Holy Places a list of shortcomings at the site that needed to be corrected.
However, according to information obtained by the station, during a meeting regarding this year’s celebrations, the center’s chief engineer said that all the faults were corrected. The minutes from the meeting have been passed on to the Lahav 433 national serious crime unit, the report said.
A police source told the station that the force was shown authorizations that the shortcomings had been corrected.
However, Channel 12 quoted the engineering firm that did the work as saying it had provided police with a list of issues that still needed fixing.
The center, which sits under the Religious Affairs Ministry, refused to comment on the report, the station said.
The station further said that police fear that some of the sects that operate compounds at Mount Meron may be trying to remove evidence from the scene to disrupt the investigation. Police have noticed unknown people who were seen taking documents from Mount Meron after the disaster, the report said.
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.