Safety at Mount Meron was neglected for years, “and we all went along with this,” a senior police officer told the state commission of inquiry into a disaster there that killed 45 people and injured 150 on April 30.
Maj. Gen. Shimon Lavi, commander of the police’s Northern District, was the first witness to appear before the commission. His predecessor in the job, Alon Asur, is slated to testify Monday, as is Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, the rabbi of the Western Wall and other holy places.
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The disaster occurred on the Lag Ba’omer holiday, which traditionally draws massive crowds to Mount Meron, where the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is located. The commission’s chairwoman, former Supreme Court President Miriam Naor, asked Lavi whether he knows what caused the disaster. “I don’t have an answer,” he replied. “It snowballed very quickly, with no prior indications.”
Nevertheless, he added, Meron “was neglected for years, with no division of responsibility, no regulation and decisions that weren’t made. And we all went along with this – all of us.”
During Lavi’s hours of testimony, the commission’s questions focused on the decision not to limit the number of participants in the festivities and how the crowds were handled. Lavi said limiting the number of participants would have been impossible “because of the infrastructure, and any intent to do so could have caused harm that far outweighed the benefits.”
At events like this, he continued, police try to ensure that pedestrian traffic keeps moving because stopping it is dangerous. “Erecting barriers could cause disasters due to the bottlenecks,” he explained.
Consequently, he tried to thin out the crowds only when he saw that too many people were crowding into passageways, thereby creating such bottlenecks.
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It was in one such passageway, down a slippery slope, that the press of people caused some to fall, resulting in the deaths and injuries.
On Lag Ba’omer in 2020, Lavi said, police did restrict entry to Meron due to the coronavirus. “I deployed more than 2,500 police officers to repel the thousands of devout believers” who tried to enter, he added.
His proposed solution to the problem is simply to stop allowing the festivities at Meron until the infrastructure is improved. “We need to do a restart of all the Meron events,” he said. “To change the location of the bonfires, the parking lots, everything. To pave roads and [build] infrastructure. The place is small.”
Naor asked whether he meant that without such changes, the festivities should be canceled next year. “Definitely,” Lavi replied, warning, “Memories are short and there will be political pressure.”
Asked whether he felt such pressure in the past, he said, “definitely, especially around the issue of the bonfires.” He set a limit on the number of fires, he continued, “and there was pressure to increase it. But I stood firm.”
Under current conditions, Lavi added, the only way to hold the festivities safely would be to reach a broad consensus, including with the ultra-Orthodox lawmakers and the leaders of all the Hasidic sects, to significantly reduce the number of people arriving at Meron.
Two weeks before Lag Ba’omer, Lavi said, then-Public Security Minister Amir Ohana told him he planned to urge then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to hold the festivities without restrictions despite the coronavirus. “I understood unambiguously that if I didn’t start preparing the critical infrastructure, Meron would blow up on us without us being ready.”
He called a meeting with representatives of various government ministries to urge that attendance at the site be limited to 10,000 people due to the virus, but “a day before the event, we understood that there were no Health Ministry restrictions,” he continued. And police have no authority to either cancel the event or restrict the number of participants on their own, he added.
“Safety isn’t in the police’s purview at all,” he insisted. “But look at the resources we invested. We set up an entire administration just for safety – renting parking lots, lighting, regulating [pedestrian flow]. It’s the easiest thing in the world to say ‘the police,’ but if it weren’t for us, nobody would have done this.”
Lavi said he convened a meeting with the event’s safety experts and engineers a day before it took place and “asked whether anything could undermine the event’s safety. They replied that the only thing is the construction the Hasidim do the night before the event,” since all the other structures had already been inspected.
“The issue of pressure from the crowds didn’t arise?” Naor asked. “No,” Lavi answered.
Naor then asked whether this issue had worried him. “It’s the issue that worried me most,” he answered. “It’s dark; there are children, women, older people, with crowds coming from all over the country.” That’s exactly why police tried to keep the pedestrian traffic flowing, he added.
“I was convinced this event would pass safely, just as it did during the previous 30 years,” he admitted. When Naor asked why no disasters had occurred during previous years, he replied, “I have no answer. I got unlucky.”
“I don’t know what made so many people leave so quickly,” he added. “Even if they want to leave the compound, they could do it gradually ... This incident went from zero to 100 in seconds. I don’t have an answer for this, it’s a question that bothers me.”
In recent weeks, police have given the commission hundreds of documents in support of their claims that they couldn’t have prevented the disaster and that other agencies had ignored illegal construction at Meron for years.
Aside from Naor, the commission’s other members are Rabbi Mordechai Karelitz, a former mayor of Bnei Brak, and Maj. Gen. (res.) Shlomo Yanai, who formerly headed both the army’s Southern Command and its planning directorate. The hearings are open to the public and are also being livestreamed on the internet.
Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit has suspended all criminal probes into the disaster until the commission finishes its work.