Eli Friend, manager of the Mount Meron grave-site of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, where 45 people were crushed to death during Lag Ba’omer celebrations last April, said on Tuesday that his control over the site was limited and that he had no role in the holiday preparations.
Speaking to the government committee investigating the disaster, Friend said, “I got a telephone call from Israel Dery [the official responsible for holy places in northern Israel], who told me, ‘The mountain is under the revelry budget, so from now on I will decide things.’”
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“I begged them, but I wasn’t invited to even a single [preparatory] meeting,” Friend said.
Friend was the third witness to be called before the panel, which began hearing witness this week. Also testifying on Tuesday was Avraham Froehlich, a member of the Committee of Five charged with managing the site, as well as an eyewitness to the disaster.
Friend said that on the night of the Lag Ba’omer festivities, he was nowhere near the site of the disaster but in an area where the women had gathered to celebrate. “It was terribly crowded – women were pushing each other, police officers were rescuing children. It was a miracle that there was no disaster there as well,” he said.
Friend described his control of the grave-site as largely symbolic. In response to a question by Miriam Naor, the committee chairwoman and former chief justice of the Supreme Court, he said he worked there on a voluntary basis and that the site operated without a budget in lieu of direct financial support from the government.
“Suppliers don’t answer my phone calls because they know I’m not the one who’s paying them,” Friend said.
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In testimony on Monday, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, who is rabbi of the Western Wall in Jerusalem and chairman of the Committee of Five, said he wasn’t aware of any problems regarding the stairs that lead up to the area where bonfires are lit for the holiday. It was on these stairs that the disaster took place.
On Sunday, Shimon Lavi, the chief of police for the Northern District, told the committee that Mount Meron had suffered “years of neglect” and that “everyone just went with it, all of us.” He said he could not explain what caused the disaster, calling it “a snowball that began rolling very fast without warning.”
The April 30 disaster killed 45 people and left around 150 injured. The government committee, formed to investigate the decisions that led to the tragedy, has the power to call up any witnesses of its choosing and use any evidence it wishes, including evidence that would not be allowed in a court of law. It will be determining who was personally responsible for the disaster and even recommending whether they should remain at their posts.