Death Risk at Mt. Meron May Have Been 'Taken for Granted,' Ex-police Chief Says

Former Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich told a state committee that repeated warnings of mortal danger at the pilgrimage site were ignored, despite 'writing on the wall'

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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Ultra Orthodox Jews look at stairs with waste on it in Mount Meron after deadly stampede in April
Ultra Orthodox Jews look at stairs with waste on it in Mount Meron after deadly stampede in AprilCredit: Ronen Zvulun/ REUTERS
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

Israel Police may have taken for granted that there would be loss of life at the Mount Meron pilgrimage site, former Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich admitted to the committee of inquiry into the crush that resulted in the deaths of 45 people.

Justice Miriam Naor, the chair of the government-appointed committee investigating the stampede that occurred during the mass Lag Ba’Omer celebrations on April 30 last year, asked Alsheich several times: “Where were you as police commissioner, as a citizen, shouting out that the mount was a ticking bomb?” Alsheich responded: “Perhaps it was [taken] for granted.”

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The deadly stampede happened after Alsheich had ended his term as commissioner. He told the committee “a letter warning that the ‘writing was on the wall’ had been delivered to all those relevant,” he said, referring to a letter written by a senior police transport department officer warning against crowding at the pilgrimage site. “And I had approached the director general of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) to advance a proposal that would determine who is responsible for [the] Meron [site]… I didn’t just get up in the morning and discover there was a problem. Everybody understands that the situation is that we are unable to influence the number of people on the mount.”

Alsheich added that on his first day in office he had approached the PMO after realizing that safety precautions on Mount Meron weren’t regulated. “We had no authority to limit the number of people entering the site,” he said. “The police have ad hoc authority to maintain safety when a danger exists. We asked for a producer who would be the authorized authority to make decisions [on the number of persons entering].”

Former Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich answers questions from the State Inquiry Committee on Meron, Tuesday morning.Credit: Emil Salman

Naor asked Alsheich why in the absence of an appointed producer to manage the event, and as head of the body responsible for public order, he hadn’t taken the matter “upstairs” and warned that he doesn’t have the ability to limit the number of people entering the site and that therefore “a disaster is likely.” Alsheich replied that he had raised the issue with the public security minister and his director general. “I told them that the situation is grave,” he said.

When asked how it was possible that the police officers stationed in the area were not qualified for the job, and why they left the site minutes before worshipers were crushed to death, Alsheich attributed the matter to the weakening of the police. "Two years without a commissioner, the retirement of extras, commander of the Northern District in the first position, and add to that the fact that the year before, no Meron celebration took place," he said.

45 people were crushed to death and another 150 injured during April’s 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.

In November, the committee submitted an interim document to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett with recommendations for the next Lag Ba’Omer celebration. Committee members recommended appointing a minister responsible for the event, regulating the number of participants (the site can safely accommodate 20,000 participants) and "taking urgent steps to improve the site's infrastructure." They also advised that only one central bonfire be lit to prevent overcrowding at different sites of the mountain, of the type that ultimately led to the disaster, and to stop food distribution.

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