Israel's police commissioner asked the attorney general to see to the formation of an external panel, headed by a judge, to examine the incident last week in which 45 people were crushed to death while celebrating the Lag Ba’omer festival at Mount Meron in northern Israel.
Police commissioner Yaakov Shabtai made the request Monday after asking to speak with Avichai Mendelblit ahead of a meeting of police commanders. People close to Shabtai say that he requested an “inquiry committee,” but Mendelblit’s associates say the police chief specified a “state commission of inquiry,” whose powers are much broader.
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“Everyone is smart after the fact, but every year there was discussion of the dangers there and every year the event went ahead,” said one official who is considered close to the police commissioner. “Everyone says it was just a matter of time before a disaster happened and they didn’t act, and unfortunately it occurred on our watch. Therefore, we have to hope that there will be someone who investigates this incident objectively and looks into what happened all those years,” the official added.
“The commissioner approved the operative plan” for this year’s Lag’ Ba’omer celebrations at Mount Meron, “but he cannot get down to the level of knowing where each one of his 5,000 police officers is.”
The police leadership also supports the establishment of a state commission of inquiry to investigate not just the disaster itself, but also aspects related to responsibility for the hillula and the safety of the site. One source with knowledge of the conversation between Shabtai and Mendelblit says Shabtai requested “a commission free of outside influences, with authority and real teeth,” and told him that “We will be open with all the material.”
The official also says Shabtai told Mendelblit he planned to send him a letter about his request for the commission later Monday, but that did not happen. The sources close to Shabtai reject the suggestion that pressure from Public Security Minister Amir Ohana caused the police chief not to send the letter; they attributed the decision to State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman’s announcement of an independent review by his office, which the sources claim rendered the letter unnecessary. However, police officials are still calling for an external commission with the authority to summon for questioning people from outside the police.
A third possibility is the establishment of a government commission of inquiry. Such a forum is created by a cabinet minister with jurisdiction over the matter under review, who appoints its members. A government commission of inquiry is headed by a retired Supreme Court justice. The cabinet has the authority to give the commission the powers of a state commission of inquiry, including calling witnesses and compelling them totestify or to submit documents. In the case of the Mount Meron disaster, the minister in charge would be either the public security minister or the religious services minister.
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A state commission of inquiry, on the other hand, is appointed by a cabinet resolution and its composition is determined by the president of the Supreme Court. One prominent example of such a commission was the one headed by Eliahu Winograd, established to investigate the events of the Second Lebanon War.
On Wednesday, six days after the disaster, the police were still claiming they could not have restricted entry to Mount Meron, which might have averted the lethal crush. “The hillula would have been held with tens of thousands of people with or without us, and rather than have total chaos there, the police entered the vacuum that has been created over the years,” said one police official. “It is not possible to prevent a religious ritual ceremony of tens of thousands, not on the Temple Mount and not on Meron.”
These comments came in wake of serious criticism from within the police and from former high-ranking police officials about the conduct of Northern District Commander Shimon Lavi and of Shabtai, who approved the plans for the operation, and in wake of assertions that Shabtai is trying to protect Ohana. “The boundary between Ohana and the commissioner is clear and Shabtai is capable of saying no to the minister,” the police official said.
In addition to the State Comptroller’s Office, both the Israel Police and the Justice Ministry department that investigates allegations of police misconduct are conducting separate inquiries into the disaster.
According to several sources, the evidence so far suggests that the extreme overcrowding indicate that the pressure that was created in the passageway and the stairs was not caused by a police barrier at the bottom, but instead as a result of someone falling at the top of the stairs. None of the officials connected to the event have given statements to any of the teams that are investigating the incident, but several police officers in the Northern District have already hired lawyers, as have officials in the Religious Services Ministry’s National Center for the Development of Holy Sites and the safety engineer and his team.
Police detectives have collected materials from the Religious Services Ministry that are presumably related to the Lag Ba’omer celebrations at the site. The Justice Ministry department has collected documents from the Northern District police, from the police position on Mount Meron and from other police officials, in addition to collecting security camera footage.
For now, both teams are mainly engaged in mapping the site, the management of which is divided among a large number of Hasidic courts and other operators; police preparations at the Toldot Aharon compound and throughout the site, the operating orders for the hillula, responsibility for building the stairway and the passageway leading to it and issues pertaining to maintenance of the site and responsibility for the hillula itself.