Gantz Pushes for Commission of Inquiry Into Mount Meron Disaster

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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Defense Minister Benny Gantz talks to the press at Sheba Medical Center, last week.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz talks to the press at Sheba Medical Center, last week.Credit: Hadas Parush
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

Justice Minister Benny Gantz announced on Sunday his plans to establish a state commission of inquiry to examine the blunders that led to the deaths of 45 people on Mount Meron on the Lag Ba'omer holiday Thursday.

Gantz contacted Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to get a legal opinion authorizing him to set up the committee under a transitional government. He also asked that Supreme Court President Esther Hayut appoint a judge to head the committee and assure the inquiry’s independence.

“Only a state commission of inquiry can deal with all the aspects of investigating the disaster, since it has the broadest powers and will have the tools to make the necessary recommendations,” Gantz said. “Setting up the commission will not bring loved ones back to their families or relieve their pain, but it can prevent such a disaster in the future.”

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to oppose a state commission of inquiry, the type of investigative panel that has the broadest of powers, including the power to subpoena witnesses. 

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, center left, with Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, pointing, visiting the the scene of the Mount Meron disaster on Friday.Credit: Kobi Gideon/GPO

Netanyahu's opponents largely support the move. Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid is also expected to call for an official committee to investigate the disaster on Monday, during his party faction meeting in the Knesset. Associates said he prefers to wait until Sunday's day of mourning for the disaster victims ends before making a public statement on the matter.

New Hope chairman Gideon Sa’ar also expressed support for the measure, as did Meretz chairman Nitzan Horowitz. Labor MKs Efrat Rayten and Emilie Moatti also joined the call for an inquiry. 

Former senior police officers also urged the prime minister to to establish a state commission of inquiry on Sunday. "What happened at Mount Meron isn’t solely the purview of the police,” a group representing dozens of former police commissioners and police major generals wrote.

“Other security agencies, government ministries and various authorities were also involved in both the process of the staff work and the decision-making, while the division of labor among these agencies was conducted completely blindly,” the group added

The former officers said there is “no choice” but to establish a state commission of inquiry that would conduct “a deep, thorough examination of all the entities involved in this event and similar ones, mainly to prevent similar disasters in the future.”

Rabbi Yitzhak Batzri, who lost two nephews and a cousin at Mount Meron, also demanded the establishment of a state commission of inquiry. “I hear people saying, ‘Why isn’t the religious community demanding a commission of inquiry?’” he remarked in an interview with Radio 103FM. “We are demanding it. We want them to investigate, because our Torah commands us to ‘take good heed unto yourselves.’”

Noting that the Torah also forbids “building a home that will pose a danger to residents of the house,” he added, “We want a commission that will investigate what can be fixed [and] how we reached this situation.”

Batzri said he isn’t looking for people to blame but said he is angry that the site wasn’t properly prepared to handle the estimated 100,000 people who attended Lag Ba’omer celebrations there Thursday night. “They should have given thought to the fact that this place needed to be prepared for lots of people,” he said. “The state should have invested [in it].... Everything appears to have been neglected.”

The disaster occurred when thousands of ultra-Orthodox revelers who were leaving a traditional Lag Ba’omer bonfire near the ancient tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai crowded into a narrow, slippery, downward-sloping passageway leading to a stairwell. There was nothing to hold on to, and some in the crowd lost their footing, crushing the people below them.

Some of those present claimed that a police barrier at the bottom of the stairs caused people to be crushed and prevented them from escaping. The police deny this, and this is one of the issues that a commission of inquiry would investigate.

The annual celebration on Mount Meron is organized by the National Center for the Development of Holy Places, which is part of the Religious Services Ministry. The ministry’s engineers and security consultants approved the preparations. But such plans are also approved in advance by the police, who are responsible for safety during the event. 

As a result, on Friday, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit ordered the Justice Ministry’s police misconduct unit to open its own investigation.

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