The Israeli parliament agreed on Monday to fast-track a bill establishing a state commission of inquiry into last month’s stampede at Mount Meron, in which 45 people were killed and 150 injured.
The disaster took place during the celebration of a religious holiday, Lag Ba’omer, and all the victims were ultra-Orthodox.
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The Knesset's influential Arrangements Committee approved the bill and exempted it from the normal rule that an initial vote can take place only 45 days after a bill is submitted. Consequently, the bill can be brought to a vote immediately.
By law, a state commission of inquiry is headed by a retired Supreme Court justice. The ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties have therefore been pushing a different bill that would set up a commission headed by someone other than a judge. But Arrangements Committee Chairwoman Karin Elharrar of Yesh Atid refused to bring that bill up for discussion.
The two parties argue that a judge won’t understand the complexities of ultra-Orthodox society.
They therefore proposed a seven-member commission of which the ultra-Orthodox parties would effectively appoint the chairman and five of the other six members. It would be headed by a former mayor appointed by the interior minister, Shas Chairman Arye Dery. The other members would be another Interior Ministry representative; one representative each from the Public Security Ministry (controlled by Likud); the Religious Services Ministry (controlled by Shas) and the Chief Rabbinate (controlled jointly by Shas and UTJ); and two public representatives appointed by the committee chairman.
Several of the victims’ families urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday to set up a state commission of inquiry instead. They vehemently opposed the ultra-Orthodox parties’ proposal, arguing that the agencies responsible for the disaster cannot be allowed to appoint the commission’s members. They also demanded that the commission include representatives of the bereaved families to ensure that their ultra-Orthodox lifestyle is taken into account.
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“Our goal is for this commission to prevent the next disaster,” and also to bring the parties responsible to justice, they wrote. Though the letter claimed that all the victims’ families support the demand for an independent commission, not all of them signed it, and some actually think an investigation is unnecessary, since the account will be settled by God.
The disaster occurred when thousands of people leaving a traditional Lag Ba’omer bonfire crowded into a narrow, slanted, slippery corridor with no railing that funneled into a stairwell. When some of them slipped, they all fell down the stairs on top of one another.