A police officer told the state commission of inquiry into the April 30 Mount Meron disaster on Wednesday that shortly before the stampede he and other officers posted near the site of the tragedy all left to take a break, on the order of their commander. When they returned, the officer said, the disaster was already in process.
The members of the panel investigating the disaster that killed 45 people and injured 150 – the chair, former Supreme Court President Miriam Naor; Rabbi Mordechai Karelitz, a former mayor of Bnei Brak and Maj. Gen. (res.) Shlomo Yanai – continued to hear testimony Wednesday, focusing on the refreshment break.
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Police Sgt. Maj. Rami Alwan, who was posted near the site where the disaster took place, testified that he and the other officers at the position were responsible for keeping the flow of foot traffic moving unimpeded. He said they followed their commander’s order to take a refreshment break, leaving the position unstaffed. When they returned from drinking coffee and a brief patrol, about 15 minutes later, they could hear shouting. The disaster, Alwan said, “was at the exact location of our position.” He added that before they took their break “there was no crowding, people came and went freely.”
Alwan’s testimony was preceded by that of Police Brig. Gen. Assaf Mantzur, who has attended the Lag Ba’omer celebrations on Mount Meron for 25 years. He supervised the bonfire of the Toldos Aharon Hasidic movement; the disaster began after the end of that ceremony.
Asked by Yanai whether it was true that the position was left unstaffed because the officers assigned to it were on a break, Mantzur said he “found it hard to believe. Maybe one or two needed something urgently. [An officer taking a refreshment break] should have left and returned quickly,” Mantzur said. He added that the officers’ shifts at the positions were 12 hours and that Alwan had said they were told to take a break after eight hours in a position that had no chairs.
Mantzur began his testimony by saying that the Mount Meron disaster “is with us every day, even now,” adding: “The instructions were to prepare for overcrowding. It’s like this every year at Meron, there was nothing unique to this year.” Naor told him that a different high-ranking police officer who was at the event “said he saw very exceptional amounts of traffic, a river of people going toward Dov Bridge,” where the disaster took place. Mantzur told her that he had not seen anything of the kind. “I was entirely focused on the event that I was managing,” he said. He added, in response to another question from Naor, that there were no obstacles on the path to the bridge. “The way was completely clear,” Mantzur said.
He did say, however, that there were communication problems between the officers on the ground and their superiors during the disaster. “The first call was from the intelligence officer, but for an unknown reason the message wasn’t broadcast and we couldn’t understand it.” Mantzur said that until that point, there had been no communication problems. “I heard bits of words and I thought there was a brawl or a criminal incident.” In answer to a question, he said he did not remember officers asking their colleagues to stop the stream of people heading for the bridge or reporting excessive crowding. “There isn’t a day when I don’t think about what happened there and try to understand where that crowd came from,” Mantzur added.
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The commission of inquiry began hearing witness testimony this week. On Tuesday Eli Friend, the manager of the Mount Meron gravesite of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, told the panel that his control over the site was limited and that he had no role in managing the Lag Ba’omer celebrations.
Avraham Froehlich, a member of the Committee of Five charged with managing the site and an eyewitness to the disaster, told the panel Wednesday that he fought against the construction of the bleachers in the Toldos Aharon compound. He said, answering a question from Naor, that he didn’t know the cost of the stadium seating.
Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Western Wall and the holy sites of Israel and the chair of the Committee of Five, testified Monday, followed by Alon Asur, the former commander of the Northern District of the Israel Police. On Monday Asur’s successor in the position, Police Maj. Gen. Shimon Lavi, testified. He told the committee that Mount Meron had suffered years of neglect and described political interference in regard to limiting the number of participants in the Lag Ba’omer celebrations.
The government commission of inquiry was established to examine the chain of events that led to the approval and holding of the celebrations. The panel has the power to summon anyone to testify and to demand any and all evidence, including evidence that would not be allowed in a court of law. After concluding its work, it can determine personal responsibility and recommend reassignment or dismissal.