Texts Show Israeli Government Lawyers Tried to Set Crowd Limits Before Deadly Stampede

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Men pray at the site where 45 people were killed at a stampede, two days after the incident, May.
Men pray at the site where 45 people were killed at a stampede, two days after the incident, May.Credit: Amir Levy

In the days before 45 worshipers died in a crowd crush at Mount Meron last spring, during a coronavirus surge in Israel, the legal advisers for several government ministries and other agencies tried to draft rules to limit crowd sizes at the site in northern Israel. Copies of WhatsApp exchanges show the difficulties faced by the lawyers, who eventually gave up. It was clear that the Lag Ba’omer celebrations at the site would draw hundreds of thousands of participants, but neither crowd limits nor pandemic restrictions were put in place for the event.

In his testimony last month to the government commission of inquiry investigating the April 30 disaster, coronavirus czar Prof. Nachman Ash said that no one was willing to take responsibility for determining the restrictions.

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“Theoretically the nationwide [pandemic] rules apply. The legal advisers [of the relevant agencies] will have to explain,” Ash told the panel. The head of the commission, former Supreme Court President Miriam Naor, interrupted Ash’s testimony, telling him: “I understand that the legal advisers gave up at some point.”

Group chats documenting the lawyers’ efforts are being published here for the first time, after Haaretz obtained transcripts of the exchanges. The correspondence took place in a WhatsApp group created by the Health Ministry legal adviser, Nina Cohen, on April 25. Among the other members of the group, called Lag Ba’omer Regulations, were the legal adviser of the Religious Affairs Ministry, Galit Klein; the legal adviser of the Israel Police coronavirus enforcement unit, Ori Buchumenski; the legal adviser of the Public Security Ministry, Ayala Weinstein; and Roni Neubauer, a lawyer representing the Justice Ministry.

In the first post to the group, Cohen noted that according to the most recent proposal, no single agency would coordinate the Lag Ba’Omer celebrations at Mount Meron. Instead, the police would issue permits to the private organizations that were to be involved, with the police in charge of making sure that no more than 3,000 people were in each of the three bonfire areas and that everyone left the site at the same time. The site operator would register participants in advance and check their vaccination status. This proposal is acceptable to the Health Ministry, Cohen added, “and I understand it was drawn up by [then-Interior Minister] Arye Dery and the Religious Affairs Ministry together with the police.”

Police and rescue volunteers at the scene of the deadly stampede at Mount Meron, April.Credit: Gil Eliahu

In response to a question from one of the lawyers, Cohen specified that the private organizations included but were not limited to various Hasidic sects.

The conversations in the group chat touched on a wide variety of issues relating to public safety, enforcement and responsibilities. Early in the conversation, Klein noted that “At this stage, the [politicians] in the Religious Affairs Ministry are not willing to take responsibility for the event as a whole,” and stressed the importance of reaching some kind of agreement that would “enable the holding of the religious event with as little as possible risk to public health. It’s important to understand that without restrictions hundreds of thousands of people will enter the site, and it will be very difficult to control the crowd density.”

About 20 minutes later Weinstein wrote that her ministry and the police are against the proposal, and specifically that the police oppose being given full responsibility for crowd control and restricting entry to the site.

The discussion continued, with participants stressing the importance of reaching some sort of agreement. “What happens if the regulations aren’t approved? The Lag Ba’omer event will take place in any event. What are the current restrictions for events held in open spaces, if any? Maybe it’s possible to forgo the advance registration and let people enter in accordance with the pandemic guidelines and the occupancy limits and solve the entire problem,” suggested Klein.

Cohen wrote that the pandemic rules restrict the number of participants in outdoor events to 100 people, or 750 in a fenced-in area with proof of vaccination or recovery from the coronavirus: “I’m not sure that it would be possible to keep hundreds of thousands of people from reaching the bonfire areas in the absence of the restrictions.”

The conversations continued, and Klein wrote: “The heads and the political officials [of the Religious Affairs Ministry] don’t want to take responsibility for the event. Nor does the center for the holy places,” which is part of the ministry. “I don’t think it’s reasonable to allow the Hasidic sects to determine who will be able to celebrate the religious ritual this year.”

The chat participants accepted Klein’s position, but no real progress was made on reaching an agreement that went beyond this small group of government lawyers.

On April 28, Klein notified the group that the previous day the ministry directors told her they wanted to move forward with a proposal, before reversing course.

Klein, the most active participant in the group, added: “I think that we have a responsibility to impress upon the management of the various ministries the implications of the absence of regulations, including the lack of police authority, the difficulty of maintaining equality between male and female participants and of controlling the crowd numbers.”

After further discussion, the group members tried to arrange for a meeting with representatives of their own ministries and the police.

In the end, it was decided that no entity had the authority to restrict entry to Mount Meron. The police were to maintain public safety, and the Health Ministry would inform participants of the absence of enforcement of pandemic restrictions, and the resultant potential danger to their health.

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