Israel Police Minister 'Takes Responsibility,' but 'Not Blame' for Mount Meron Tragedy

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לביא (מימין) לצד שבתאי והשר אוחנה, בינואר
Northern District Commander Kobi Lavie, on the right, alongside Public Security Minister Amir Ohana and Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, in JanuaryCredit: Gil Eliahu

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

"I take responsibility but responsibility does not mean blame...I am responsible for every person who was attacked and the police were not there to save him," he said in a statement on Facebook. "We will do everything we can to prevent such a disaster from repeating itself," he added. 

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

Dozens of former police chiefs also signed a petition Sunday addressed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, calling on him to establish a committee to investigate the Mount Meron tragedy. 

On Thursday night, 45 people were killed and over 150 more were injured in a stampede as tens of thousands of people gathered at Mount Meron for Lag Ba'omer celebrations. The stampede was caused after some revelers slipped on steps, causing dozens more people to fall over, according to police sources.

Over the weekend, Lavi said privately that he is satisfied with his decisions and is willing to stand behind them in the face of all scrutiny. On Friday, he said that he bears full responsibility for the event, however, according to a senior police official, "There is a big difference between accepting responsibility and accepting blame." 

A police officer at the scene of the incident, yesterdayCredit: Gil Eliahu

The department responsible for investigating police misconduct, which is in charge of investigating the disaster, is expected to gather testimony from Lavi and senior officers in the Northern District Command. However, at this point, there is no intention to investigate any of the officers under caution or gather testimony from the police commissioner himself. Testimony will also be gathered from engineers and safety advisors from the Religious Services Ministry, who authorized the event to take place.

In light of the criticism over the police's conduct, Shabtai and Lavi met several times to discuss the incident over the weekend, and the commissioner backed up the district commander in closed conversations. "Lavi took responsibility because he is the commander and has an overarching responsibility, however, blame is not something that can be determined at the moment," said a senior member of the organization. "No one can know what caused the disaster, how it happened and what led to it. They will have to determine through the investigation if there's a causal link between decisions made by an officer and the tragedy." Privately, Shabtai said that the police did everything it could to prevent disaster and could not have predicted what occured on the stairs.

Shabtai spoke publicly about the event for the first time on Saturday, expressing his condolences to the families of those killed and wishing a speedy recovery to those injured. “I will not rest until we discover exactly what led to this tragedy,” Shabtai said. “The Israel Police, under my command, will cooperate fully with every aspect of the investigation, with full transparency.” Shabtai also thanked the first responders who “worked tirelessly to do all they could and save lives.”

In the Northern District Command, they say that the police commissioner was in no way involved in the preparations for the event at Meron, except the approval of the police plan, which didn't involve him because decisions were made at the level of the district.

The police are convinced that the disaster was not foreseeable or preventable. Several officers who were involved in the event at Meron, this year and in previous years, rejected the claim that it was possible to limit the number of attendees. "The possibility to deter masses from arriving at Meron is very limited," said one of the officials. "There's the possibility of controlling public transport to the mountain, but you can't tell the masses that there won't be an event on Lag Ba'omer. If someone had said that, then come hell or high water the masses will get to Meron by foot, through the forests or the nearby village. Then there would be no control or coordination, and that's far more dangerous."

On their part, 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?"

Senior police officials have also expressed their grievances regarding Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit's decision to allow the unit for police misconduct to investigate the disaster, instead of a police source or external committee. "The moment they decided that the internal investigations unit would investigate, the public impression is that the police hold sole responsibility," a police official said. "All these years it was the police issuing warnings, and now we're also to blame?" The investigation is expected to be overseen by the Deputy State Prosecutor for Criminal Matters, Shlomo Lemberger, and Amit Eisman, the acting state prosecutor.

A short time after the incident at Meron, the police collected footage from the security cameras at Mount Meron, including footage of the staircase where 45 people suffocated. The footage has been passed on to the internal investigations unit. Alongside testimony from eyewitnesses, the investigators have begun gathering materials on previous warnings that were issued regarding structural failures at the site, including the state comptroller's report.

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