Mount Meron Disaster: Israel Arrests Safety Engineer Who Okayed Celebration Where 45 Died

Investigators say top brass at the police's Northern District should be questioned as suspects

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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A shtreimel in Mount Meron, in northern Israel, earlier this month.
A shtreimel in Mount Meron, in northern Israel, earlier this month.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

The police on Monday arrested the safety engineer who gave the green light for the traditional Lag Ba’omer celebration at Mount Meron that ended in 45 people being fatally suffocated and 150 people injured. His assistant, a retired police superintendent, was also arrested.

Investigators are also saying that the police Northern District commander and other officers should be questioned as suspects for their alleged involvement in causing the casualties.

From the investigation to date, it appears that the main reason for the crowding and pressure at the Toldot Aharon bonfire compound, outside which the disaster occurred, was that police gave the Hasidic court permission to hold its bonfire at a different time than the other bonfires at the compound. This meant that the crowd was not dispersed among several bonfires, as usually happens, but that additional thousands crowded in to see the Toldot Aharon blaze. Moreover, no policemen were stationed at the compound’s exit, and police only arrived 10 minutes after the masses had already pushed through there to the nearby walkway, causing the crush, investigators said.

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Attorney Michael Carmel, who is representing the engineer, Amar Khalaila, and the assistant, Pinhas Azarzar, said, “My clients acted in accordance with the law. I believe that any investigation will clear them of any criminal allegation.” The two were arrested by the police’s Peles unit, which investigates engineering violations.

According to senior police officers, Azarzar, a former head of the licensing and security branch of the police’s Northern District, was employed by Khalaila’s firm, BCS Engineering and Safety, as an engineer’s assistant. According to police sources, a few days before the hilula, or celebration, at the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai in Meron, he visited the compound along with Northern District commander Maj. Gen. Shimon Lavie, and gave his approval to the structures at the site. Police sources say Lavie did not suffice with Azarzar’s approval, and asked that another engineer come to the site and sign off on the safety of the bleachers erected for the crowd.

When employed by the police Northern District, Azarzar had been responsible for the hilula at the grave, had attended meetings of the Knesset Interior Committee on the issue and had even warned MKs of the risks inherent in holding the celebration at the site.

The investigation team of the Justice Ministry’s department for investigating police misconduct believes Lavie and other officers involved should be questioned as suspects – not as witnesses – in causing the deaths of the 45 victims. According to sources involved in the investigation, it’s clear Lavie did not limit the number of participants at the bonfire lighting in the Toldot Aharon compound, despite the warnings and the fear of overcrowding raised in discussions before the event by, among others, the safety engineer affiliated with the Center for the Development of the Holy Places.

According to several law enforcement officials, the investigation at this stage tends toward pressing charges for causing death by negligence (punishable by up to three years’ imprisonment), and not the more serious charge of causing death by taking an irresponsible risk (which carries a sentence of up to 12 years). However, it’s possible no recommendation for charges will be given by investigators, which would mean the officers could be charged with whatever crime, if any, the evidence points to.

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