'Kids Could Die, Police Are Responsible,' Top Official Said Hours Before Tragedy

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Mourners in Bnei Brak following the death of 45 in a stampede in Lag Ba'omer
Mourners in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak following the death of 45 in a stampede in Lag Ba'omer on ThursdayCredit: Moti Milrod

A senior official at the authority responsible for Israel's religious sites augured the 'suffocation' of children just two hours before the devastating stampede at Mount Meron, which left 45 people dead at Lag Ba'omer celebrations.

"We are constantly under stress to ensure that all systems work properly…God forbid, the child of some mother will be in danger of suffocation, that they will push him, that they will amass around him," director general of National Center for Development of Holy Places, Yossi Schwinger, said in a broadcast by the Religious Services Ministry.

The interviewer placed responsibility on Schwinger: "Event production, coordination between all the parties, and funding everything that’s needed. But you are not responsible for the police, Magen David Adom or the Transportation Ministry."

Schwinger retorted by saying that the "responsible party in this area is Israel Police, and we must not allow them to run away from this matter...in practice the landlord here in the field, in terms of safety, is the Israel Police."

The police are pointing fingers at the director general of National Center for Development of Holy Places and those responsible for the holy sites in the north – both of which fall under the authority of the Religious Services Ministry. "Why aren't they asking them for answers?" A senior official in the police wondered, "They're the ones who determined when people leave and enter the site, and who lit [the bonfire] and where, and they're responsible for the safety of the area and the engineers who approved the structures. They appeared at all the meetings and debates ahead of the event. Where have they gone all of a sudden?"

On Saturday, Public Security Amir Ohana, who oversees Israel's police, said that he is "responsible" for the stampede on Mount Meron, which left at least 45 people dead, but that this "does not mean blame."

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai and Northern District Commander Shimon Lavi also said in closed conversations over the weekend that they do not plan to resign following the disaster, Haaretz learned.

Ohana also expressed his support for the "entire chain of command" and singled out the two men: Shabtai for working "night and day" and "implementing a program that will march the police to fulfill their mission in the fight against crime and terrorism," and Lavi as "one of the best officers." 

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