Senior police officials rejected allegations that the Northern District police commander is responsible for the deadly Lag Ba'omer stampede in Israel's Mount Meron that left at least 45 people killed and over 150 injured.
Tens of thousands of people participated Thursday in the annual Lag Ba'omer festivities at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, making it the largest event held in Israel since the coronavirus pandemic broke out last year.
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Since the site was so densely attended, search and rescue authorities say they struggled to evacuate trapped people. The stampede was caused after some revelers slipped on steps, causing dozens more people to fall over, according to police sources.
"Placing the responsibility on [Maj. Gen. Shimon] Lavie isn't right, this event couldn't be prevented," one police source said while Israel's ultra-Orthodox community blames Lavie for the deadly event.
On his part, Lavie said he bears full responsibility for what had happened. "I, Shimon Lavie, Northern District commander, take full responsibility for better or worse."
"I'll put things on the table, I, Shimon Lavie, the commander of the Israel Police Northern District, bear full responsibility, for better and worse," he said Friday morning.
"We've prepared for all scenarios, we've prioritized the issue of public safety without any compromises. I can tell you that at the moment we are collecting evidence to get to the bottom of what happened."
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The police opened a preliminary investigation into the deadly event as they face criticism for their decision to block one of the passages on the site.
"The event is under investigation, but it's worth noting that this year, there are fewer people on the mountain than in previous years."
Police sources told Haaretz that in the days leading up to the event, the site was checked for any structural problems. The sources added that people slipping on the stairs "was out of our [police] control."
"Police have decided to block a passage and people were forced in. People were asphyxiated. People who were in the first row were terribly crushed," Shachar, a resident of the southern city of Netivot, said.
Public Security Minister Amir Ohana said that the police were attempting to clear main access roads to enable the thousands of people still stranded at the disaster site to safely leave.
“Very unfortunately, many of the dead have yet to be identified,” Ohana added, “and due to the nature of the situation, there are many families who still have no information.”
Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit’s office said Friday morning that it had decided that the Justice Ministry’s police misconduct unit would immediately launch an investigation to determine whether there was any suspicion of criminal conduct, an apparent reference to possible criminal negligence on the part of the police in their handling of the crowds at Mt. Meron.
Mendelblit ordered the police not to gather testimony at this stage from the cops who were on site as the police carry out their own investigation of the cause of the incident.
Israel’s Sephardi chief rabbi, Yitzhak Yosef, said that now is not the time to pin blame for the disaster. “I call on the public at large to pray for the recovery of the injured, and to support the families of those who have lost relatives,” Yosef said.