A story of intimidation, ignorance and a shirking of responsibility has been gradually emerging, as the government committee investigating the Lag Ba’omer disaster at Mount Meron gathers evidence from senior police officers, representatives of Hasidic movements, administrators of holy places, ministry officials and local politicians.
The panel has already heard 14 days of testimony by 43 officials, who have described the circumstances and their roles in the events that led to a stampede during the April 30 holiday that took the lives of 45 people and injured another 150. Ten witnesses are due to testify this week, including Police Superintendent Liraz Amano, assistant to the northern district commander; Chief Superintendent David Yosef, head of inspection, monitoring and service levels in the National Public Transportation Authority; Police Commander Victor Buskila; Ali Shohana, a construction engineer; and eyewitnesses to the disaster.
What the committee has learned is that many officials had long expressed concern about the Lag Ba’omer chaos at the site, which is centered on the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai, in terms of organization, planning and security. However, nothing was done, even as the number of people joining the festivities continued to grow year after year.
However, few of the officials involved have been willing to accept personal responsibility and instead have pointed a finger at others. Many of those representing the Haredi groups that controlled the site have told the committee they blamed the disaster on fate.
From the testimony presented so far, it emerges that neither the police commanders responsible for safety and security nor the administrators responsible for the site itself had the information necessary to make the right decisions in real time as the disaster – a collapsed ramp crowded the celebrants leaving the site – unfolded.
Haaretz has examined the testimony to date, and these are the main points to have come out of it.
Red flags: From what officers of various ranks have told the committee, the police ignored the signs of the growing safety risks at Mount Meron. For example, an officer with the rank of brigadier general who had been responsible for safety during the bonfire lighting conducted by the Toldos Aharon sect said that he had never warned anyone about the danger because “we don’t talk about such things. We receive an order and carry it out.” The head of the traffic police, with the rank of major general, explained that was waiting for orders from the district commander about crowd control but that he was aware of the unusual crowding last Lag Ba’omer. The officer stationed at the passage where the disaster occurred was given an order to take a break, leaving no police presence there when the disaster occurred.
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Lack of ministerial responsibility: The Religious Services Ministry and the Center for the Development of Holy Places, which is under its aegis, boasted every year of the festivities’ success. But after the calamity, they denied any responsibility. The ministry’s director general, the center’s director and the person the center had put in charge at the site have said the police should take the blame.
‘Reign of Terror’: The heads of the charitable trusts that control different parts of the compound are endlessly at war with each other over control of the site’s many structures. The result is that almost nothing has been done to maintain and repair the compound. Various officials have stated in their testimony that extremist Hasidic sects from Mea She’arim in Jerusalem imposed a “reign of terror” on those responsible, especially on the so-called Committee of Five, which formally administers the tomb compound. The sects prohibited any changes or “modernization” of the compound. Police enforcement, which hinged on cooperation from the sects, was lacking.
The committee is expected to release an interim report concerning upcoming Lag Ba’omer celebrations that are due to take place in another approximately seven months. The committee has asked all government, police and other officials to submit by the end of the week a report on preparations made immediately before the incident to improve procedures for holding the event in the future.
As regards, last April’s disaster, the committee will examine all aspects of the incident and the decision-making that led up to the event and the planning and conditions that were approved. It will also deal with the professional and legal issues involving safety at mass gatherings, including religious events.
The committee has broad authority to summon civil servants and others to give public testimony and order them to submit documents, including confidential materials. The committee can make recommendations involving individual officials, including removing them from their positions. According to a High Court of Justice ruling, the government must discuss the findings but is not required to accept them.