A retired police, an officer who was chief of operations for the national force at the time of the Mount Meron disaster, said Thursday that the police commissioner rejected his proposal to impose crowd limits at the site.
Forty-five people were killed and about 150 were injured April 30 in a crowd crush during Lag Ba’omer holiday celebrations.
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Amnon Alkalai told the commission of inquiry into the disaster that he warned Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, in a meeting 11 days before the event, of the potential for multiple casualties.
“I recommended ... limiting the bonfires to 3,000 people, but [Shabtai] ruled it out completely,” Alkalai told the panel Thursday morning.
“[Shabtai] said ‘either black or white.’ Either the mountain is open completely or the mountain is closed completely. I thought that was a mistake. I said the main problem is the crowding and the fear for public safety, and if that’s how things [were planned] – prepare for a mass casualty event.”
Alkalai said he asked in the middle of March to be relieved of his post, because he felt the decision-making process and the commissioner’s authority to make operational and organizational decisions were wrong.
“I told [Shabtai] I couldn’t perform my responsibilities this way. … There was a chain of events. At his request, I agreed to remain for another year. I saw that during the entire period that we served, the decision-making process did not operate properly.”
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The chair of the inquiry commission, former Supreme Court President Miriam Naor, said in response: “Let me put things bluntly, are you telling us the commissioner’s decision in the meeting was a wrong decision?” Alkalai answered: “Yes.”
Naor then asked: “And that he didn’t listen to your advice on April 19, [the tragedy] was the result?” Alkalai said: “I don’t want to ascribe the decision on it, but the nature of the event was very much influenced by the discussion with the commissioner. If the police were determined about meeting the regulations, I think the situation would have been different.”
A few hours after the meeting, Shabtai changed his mind and told Alkalai he had nonetheless decided to make rules for the celebration, Alkalai told the commission. “I decided to go up to the mountain because on one hand the commissioner said ‘either black of white,’ but on the other hand he said there would be regulations, so it wasn’t clear.”
A few days before the event, Health Ministry Director General Prof. Nachman Ash told Alkalai there were no regulations, because the Religious Services Ministry and the police had not reached an agreement, he said.
“I said it wasn’t the police’s [responsibility]. The police’s legal adviser said that no body had any authority to restrict Mount Meron. After a few hours, I received a message to go to the ministerial committee with the commissioner, and he said there: ‘If there is an inquiry commission, they will come to me because I didn’t limit the size of the crowd.”
At the end of this meeting, the participants decided that Ash would send a document summing up the meeting, said Alkalai – “but this document did not reflect what happened in the meeting,” and didn’t reflect what the ministers and Shabtai had said. “We reached a situation where on the eve of the event there was no connection between the regulations and what was done,” said Alkalai.