Two Israeli Agencies Will Cooperate in Mount Meron Probe, Attorney General Says

Move is aimed to avoid the police investigating itself regarding stampede that left 45 dead, but critics say unusual move is problematic in itself

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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The Mount Meron complex where the tragedy that killed 45 people occurred.
The Mount Meron complex where the tragedy that killed 45 people occurred.Credit: Ofer Vaknin
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

Two Israeli agencies investigating the Mount Meron disaster – the police and the Justice Ministry department that investigates police misconduct – will cooperate in the investigation, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit announced on Thursday.

Last week, 45 people were crushed to death in a stampede on a stairwell during the annual Lag Ba’omer festivities at Mount Meron.

Why Bibi and his Haredi cronies won’t allow a meaningful probe into Israel’s deadly stampede. LISTEN

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Nevertheless, he added, they will also continue probing the incident on separate tracks, “to preserve the independence of each agency’s investigation and its ability to uncover the truth in optimal fashion.” Moreover, only Justice Ministry investigators will question police officers, so the police won’t be involved in the decision on whether any of the officers should be considered a suspect.

The prosecution will oversee the joint investigative team and rule on any disputes that arise between the agencies. Mendelblit’s statement noted that the heads of both the police’s investigations and intelligence department and the Justice Ministry department had termed the probe “very complicated” due to the multiplicity of governmental, public and private bodies involved in the disaster.

Mendelblit said he decided on the joint investigation because other alternatives – having only one of the two agencies investigate or having each of them investigate independently – would complicate the probe and could impede efforts to uncover the truth.

Law enforcement sources told Haaretz earlier this week that having two agencies investigate simultaneously was unprecedented and problematic, with one noting that having police investigate an incident in which the police themselves may have acted improperly was particularly problematic. These sources proposed instead that an independent investigative panel be set up that would be authorized to investigate all the bodies involved in organizing and running the festivities.

Under the current plan, the police’s Lahav 433 unit will investigate all bodies involved in the event except the police. These include outside engineers and safety consultants; the National Center for the Development of Holy Places, which runs Mount Meron and is subordinate to the Religious Services Ministry; state and local government officials; and the so-called Committee of Five that runs the compound at the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, which is where the festivities take place.

The Justice Ministry department will investigate the police’s role in the event, particularly that of the police’s Northern District, and specifically whether anything police did or failed to do could be considered criminal.

Ministry investigators think the Northern District’s commander, Maj. Gen. Shimon Lavi, and some other officers should be questioned as suspects in causing the deaths rather than as witnesses. Sources involved in the probe said it’s already clear that Lavi didn’t limit the number of people attending the bonfire in the Toldos Aharon compound, where the disaster occurred, even though a safety engineer hired by the National Center for the Development of Holy Places had warned about the risks of overcrowding in discussions prior to the event.

But several sources said the department’s head, Keren Bar-Menachem, is currently leaning toward treating all the officers as witnesses rather than as suspects. The final decision on whether anyone should be criminally investigated will be made by Mendelblit and acting State Prosecutor Amit Aisman.

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