Who’s Responsible for the Tomb Compound Where Disaster Struck Israel? Depends Who You Ask

The police and religious establishment are trading accusations on who’s to blame for last week's stampede where 45 pilgrims died

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A police officer taking a photo after daybreak after the Mount Meron disaster, Friday.
A police officer taking a photo after daybreak after the Mount Meron disaster, Friday.Credit: Gil Eliahu

The police say the Holy Sites Authority is responsible for safety at the annual Lag Ba’omer festival on Mount Meron, but the Religious Services Ministry says the police have taken over in that regard and make all the decisions.

The clash comes as the state comptroller announced a “special audit” into the stampede at the festival last week where 45 people were crushed to death. Many Israelis are calling for a state commission of inquiry to investigate the matter.

Police officials say the engineer hired by the Religious Services Ministry recently approved the structures on Mount Meron but did not examine the exit from the bleachers where the disaster occurred or the compounds where the traditional bonfires were lit.

In 2008, after years of dispute over the management of the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the site of the annual pilgrimage, the Supreme Court ruled that the body known as the committee of five would be responsible for the site. The committee is made up of two representatives from the Sephardi religious trust, two from the Ashkenazi community and one from the state, who heads the panel. Since 2014, the rabbi of Israel’s holy places, Shmuel Rabinowitz, has headed the committee.

In 2013, then-Finance Minister Yair Lapid announced his intention to transfer the tomb compound to the government’s management. A number of petitions to the High Court of Justice were filed against the change, and the justices sent the two sides into mediation.

Last year the parties reached an agreement that the High Court awarded the status of a court ruling. According to the agreement, the committee of five would run the site for another three years, during which a director general and legal adviser would be appointed and file lawsuits that would remove buildings put up illegally in the compound.

The committee of five is responsible for the tomb compound throughout the year, but the body responsible for the Lag Ba’omer festival on Mount Meron is the Religious Services Ministry’s Holy Sites Authority, with Rabbi Yosef Schwinger in charge. Schwinger is very close to Interior Minister Arye Dery of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, and the rabbi for the holy sites in the north, Yisrael Dery.

The compound at Mount Meron on Sunday.Credit: Amir Levy

Ultra-Orthodox websites have described Schwinger and Yisrael Dery as “those responsible for the Meron operation,” and police officials say the two were responsible for the safety of the festival compound and the participants. But in 2018, the Religious Services Ministry rejected an attempt by the Public Security Ministry to declare Schwinger and Dery responsible.

The Holy Sites Authority hired the engineers and safety consultants who approved the holding of the festival, set the arrangements for lighting the bonfires, and were in contact with the civilian agencies and rabbinical communities involved, police officials say.

In the weeks before the festival, the owner of the company BCS Engineering and Safety, Amar Khalaila, who has worked in the compound in recent years, approved the safety of the site, the police officials added. The company is registered in the town of Yafia outside Nazareth, and works mostly in the north.

BCS drew up the safety plan for the 2019 Independence Day celebrations for the Jezreel Valley Regional Council, and was appointed the safety official for the town of Kiryat Tivon in the north. A 2018 internal audit for Kiryat Tivon states that BCS was hired without a valid contract for a few years and that no bidding process took place. According the audit, the company’s owners did not submit the required reports, though the city praised the firm's professionalism.

Khalaila “is a certified safety consultant and also a construction engineer,” Kiryat Tivon’s contracts committee said, explaining its hiring of Khalaila without a bidding process. He has “very special expertise that justifies contracting with an exemption from competitive bidding,” the committee said, adding that Khalaila provided “a very impressive return for the council relative to cost and and the number of hours he is employed for.”

Khalaila declined to comment.

Police officials say that Pinhas Azarzar, a retired head of the licensing and security branch of the police’s Northern District, was employed by BCS as an assistant engineer. They say that a few days before Thursday night’s disaster, Azarzar toured the compound with Northern District chief Shimon Lavi and approved the buildings in the compound. Lavi wasn’t satisfied, however, and asked for another engineer to approve the bleachers.

Members of the ultra-Orthodox community at Mount Meron on Sunday. Credit: Amir Levy

In the past, Azarzar, then a police superintendent, was responsible for the tomb compound at the festival and took part in sessions of the Knesset Interior and Environment Committee representing the police. He even warned the committee of the dangers in holding the festival.

Azarzar said he could not comment until investigators had made a decision. Khalaila declined to comment.

But in practice, the agency that made the decisions on the festival was the police, planners of the events said. “In the end, the police are responsible for order and security, and in practice for almost the entire event,” one organizer said. “They decide on the times of the lighting, which lighting is approved and which isn’t.”

The tomb compound has many people responsible, so there is total chaos in making decisions concerning it, another person told Haaretz. But in the end the police are responsible for approving safety, he added.

In 2015, the current head of the licensing and security branch of the police’s Northern District and one of the officials responsible for the compound, Micha Tobol, commented on the police’s responsibility for the site.

“As part of the police’s role as responsible for public safety, and because there is no group to lead and produce [the event], control and management of the entire event is on our shoulders,” Tobol said at a conference on the compound at the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute.

Tobol said the police are the only agency that works with all groups taking part in the festival on Mount Meron. “It’s impossible through administrative means to limit or cancel the event,” he said. “Every year the police bring up the request for the appointment of a producer, and we hope that this process will result in a decision next year. Today we don’t have one address but a lot of addresses.”

As he put it, the police are the “sovereign” and are responsibile for Mount Meron.

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