Witnesses: Police, unaware of disaster, blocked exit route

Meron exit route was known for years as bottleneck; police commander takes blame

Shimon Lavi says ready for investigation ‘for better or worse’; narrow pathway at site was known to be a danger, but other police officials say incident was unavoidable

Israeli rescue forces and police on a metal-floored walkway hours after a mass fatality event during the celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer on Mt. Meron, in northern Israel on April 30, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Israeli rescue forces and police on a metal-floored walkway hours after a mass fatality event during the celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer on Mt. Meron, in northern Israel on April 30, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The police force’s Northern District Commander Shimon Lavi, who oversaw the security arrangements for mass Lag B’Omer celebrations at Mt Meron, said Friday morning that he took responsibility for the disaster that killed at least 44 people at the site overnight, as criticism grew that the tragedy could have been prevented.

“I bear overall responsibility, for better or worse, and am ready for any investigation,” he told reporters hours after the tragedy, in which victims were crushed in a deadly stampede amid massive overcrowding.

While eyewitnesses accused police of blocking a key exit route at the bottom of a narrow metal-floored walkway, which had for years been seen as a dangerous potential bottleneck, Lavi said that the precise cause of the disaster remained unclear.

Initial indications were that the fatal crushing occurred among large numbers of ultra-Orthodox pilgrims moving through the walkway, on an incline, on the exit route from the Mt Meron site. People began to trip and fall on each other along the packed route, creating a fatal domino effect. Police for a period blocked stairs at the bottom of the walkway, Channel 12 news reported.

It wasn’t immediately clear why police may have prevented some people from leaving the scene as the disaster began to unfold — a move which would have reduced pressure on the packed crowd — but officers were apparently unaware of the severity of the situation and were trying to keep some areas clear of congregants.

Commander Shimon Lavi speaks during an exchange ceremony of the North District Police Command, on July 9, 2019. (Flash90)

There is an ongoing “complicated effort to gather evidence to reach the truth,” Lavi said, adding that police officers saved lives during the stampede, pushing through the crowds to rescue those trapped.

At least 44 people were crushed to death and more than 100 people hurt, including many in critical condition, in the stampede after midnight Thursday at the mass gathering to celebrate the Lag B’Omer holiday at the Mount Meron gravesite of the second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai.

According to Army Radio, children were among the dead and injured.

Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health services at the Health Ministry, who earlier in the week had warned that mass Lag B’Omer gatherings at Meron could drive an outbreak of the coronavirus, told Army Radio that the disaster could have been averted if police had enforced the restrictions on the number of people allowed to gather.

“It was not possible to reach an agreement on who enforces the regulations at Mt. Meron,” she said. “I remind you that the number of people allowed to gather outside is restricted to 100 — it is the responsibility of the police to enforce the laws of the State of Israel.”

On Wednesday, Alroy-Preis accused the government and authorities of passing the buck on the enforcement of safety precautions at the site, albeit in the context of the pandemic.

The event appeared to be one of the worst peacetime tragedies in Israel’s history, equaling the death toll from the 2010 Mount Carmel forest fire.

A police official said dozens of participants in a concert had “slipped” while walking along the crowded walkway, causing a crushing domino effect.

Israeli rescue forces and police near a mass fatality scene during a gathering marking the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer on Mt. Meron, in northern Israel on April 30, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

As early as 2018 some had warned of such an incident occurring. Ultra-Orthodox journalist Arye Erlich had advised expanding what he said was the only exit route from the Meron compound, from the narrow bottleneck that exists today, to avoid a repeat of a 2015 stampede at a funeral that killed one and wounded others.

“Who will prevent the disaster during the lighting ceremony,” a headline in the ultra-Orthodox website Haredim10 read three years ago, referring to the bonfire event.

Police officials told the Haaretz daily that while the police were securing the event, and had examined the compound from an engineering point of view in recent days, an incident of people falling down the stairs was “out of their control.”

At around midnight Thursday, organizers had estimated that some 100,000 people were at the site. The huge gathering, the largest in Israel since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, had already sparked health fears.

Due to the large crowds, police said they were unable to enforce coronavirus restrictions at the site.

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