The state commission of inquiry into last spring’s disaster on Mount Meron will begin gathering testimony on Sunday next week, the panel announced on Monday, three months after the deadly stampede at Israel’s biggest religious festival that claimed the lives of 45 celebrants.
The first witness to be called before the commission will be Shimon Lavi, the chief of police for the northern district, who was responsible for public safety at the religious site during the crush on April 30.
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Forty-five people were crushed to death and 150 were injured during the annual pilgrimage to the grave of the 2nd century Mishnaic sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai at the foothills of Mount Meron after visitors began slipping on a metal ramp passing through a narrow, overcrowded passageway. The passageway had been illegally constructed by the Toldos Aharon Hasidic sect to enforce gender separation.
The commission was formed in June, more than a month after the incident. The panel is chaired by former Supreme Court chief justice Miriam Naor and its hearings, which will be held at the Jerusalem Technology Park, will be open to the public and streamed live over the internet.
Lavi, who said the morning after the crush that he “bears overall responsibility, for better or for worse,” is expected to appear before the commission with his lawyer, Avigdor Klagsbald, who he retained shortly after the incident.
Lavi intends to present the commission with materials he has collected since the incident that he has said will show that the police under his command had been fully prepared for the event and had undertaken emergency drills, including procedures for evacuating the injured.
In addition to Lavi, the commission also summoned his predecessor Alon Asur and Yosef Schwinger, the head of the National Center for the Development of Holy Places, which oversees the Meron site. Other witnesses include Yisrael Dery, Schwinger’s subordinate who is responsible for Jewish holy sites in the north; the Western Wall Chief Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz in his role as chairman of the Committee of Five that oversees the Bar-Yochai tomb; and Eli Friend, manager of the gravesite.
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The state commission has two other members besides Naor – Rabbi Mordechai Karlitz, former mayor of Bnei Brak who once served on the Tal Commission on the ultra-Orthodox draft; and Gen. (ret.) Shlomo Yanai, who previously served as head of the army’s Southern Command and the army’s planning division.
The commission members toured the site for the first time about two weeks ago. They were shown the passageway where celebrants leaving the Toldos Aharon compound were crushed. The members were also given explanations about the building plan of the site, structures slated for demolition and emergency-evacuation routes.
In the wake of the disaster, the police launched an investigation of the officers responsible for maintaining order on the night of the disaster. At the same time, the Benjamin Netanyahu administration was bombarded with calls to open a state commission of inquiry into the causes of the disaster, but these were reportedly opposed by the ultra-Orthodox members of his coalition. The commission was finally established by the Bennett-Lapid government on its second cabinet meeting. Last month, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit suspended the police and police internal affairs probes while the government panel conducts its own probe.
The commission was also charged with recommending ways to better ensure safety at mass events in the future, mainly at holy sites. The commission will also recommend changes that need to be made to ensure safety at Lag Ba’omer festivities at Meron, both in terms of procedures and infrastructure at the site.