Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s cabinet voted Sunday to establish a state commission of inquiry into the causes of a stampede that killed dozens of people during a religious festival at Mount Meron in Israel's north in April.
Forty-five people were crushed to death during the annual pilgrimage to the grave of the 2nd century Mishnaic sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai at the foothills of Mount Meron after visitors began slipping on a metal ramp passing through a narrow, overcrowded passageway. The passageway had been illegally constructed by the Toldos Aharon Hasidic sect to enforce gender separation.
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“As part of the decision, the committee will investigate the chain of events and determine findings and conclusions regarding all aspects of the event,” the government said in a statement following Sunday morning’s vote, which authorized NIS 6 million for the investigation.
“As we promised, we are approving the proposal of my friends - Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman - to establish a state commission of inquiry into the disaster on Mount Meron. 45 people lost their lives in the terrible disaster, and we have a responsibility to learn its lessons and prevent the next disaster. The commission will not be able to return those who [died], but the government can do everything to prevent such an unnecessary loss in the future,” said Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
He added that his government would “do everything” possible to allow pilgrims to visit Meron in safety during the Lag Ba’omer holiday and all year round.
The pilgrimage site is usually packed beyond capacity on the Lag Ba’omer holiday. Responsibility for managing events is shared among a number of Hasidic groups, with none of them having complete oversight. Prior to this year’s pilgrimage, then Interior Minister Arye Dery pressed officials to rescind proposed limits on the permitted size for Lag Ba’omer.
According to a copy of the government resolution tweeted by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, the commission will investigate both the Meron disaster itself and the larger question of whether to regulate, or even nationalize, some religious sites at which mass events are held in order to prevent further tragedies. The investigation will have a budget of 6 million shekels ($1.8 million).
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“As I pledged, this morning I presented to the cabinet secretariat the motion for a resolution to establish a state commission of inquiry into the Meron disaster, ahead of the cabinet meeting on Sunday,” Gantz declared, calling it a “moral debt to the families” of the victims.
The commission will “do justice to the families and prevent the next disaster in the state of Israel,” tweeted Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman.
In their coalition agreement, Bennett’s Yamina party and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party agreed to support the formation of such a commission, which has been opposed by ultra-Orthodox lawmakers, despite the fact that most of the victims were ultra-Orthodox.
According to the ultra-Orthodox Behadrei Haredim news website, Deputy Transportation Minister Uri Maklev told colleagues at a United Torah Judaism Knesset faction meeting following the tragedy that if a state commission is established, “there will be people whom we know who are liable to be harmed, people at the Religious Affairs Ministry, people who are responsible for the festivities; there are people who are responsible for Meron.”
Yisrael Diskind, whose brother Simcha was among those killed, told Haaretz last week that the families of the victims welcomed the “positive progress” and hoped that a committee would indeed be established.
“It’s too early to hand out compliments to elected officials until a committee is formed, but these days I’m a little more optimistic,” he said, after it was announced that the cabinet would vote on establishing an inquiry, calling for politicians to cooperate to “prevent the next disaster.”
In another accident roughly two weeks after the Meron disaster, two people were killed and dozens injured at a Shavuot service after bleachers collapsed at a crowded synagogue construction site in the settlement of Givat Ze’ev near Jerusalem. The event went ahead despite warnings that the site was unsafe.