A Month After Mount Meron Tragedy, 7 Key Questions Remain Unanswered

Why were the potential dangers of the passageway where 45 people were crushed to death on April 30 not recognized in advance, where were the police, and why were they so slow to respond? These are some of the lingering questions following the worst civilian disaster in Israeli history

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A month has passed since the Lag Ba’omer tragedy at Mount Meron, and the investigation into the disaster is moving at a snail’s pace.

In spite of the extent of the tragedy, which was the largest civilian disaster in Israeli history, only 11 people have been questioned as suspects so far over the deaths of 45 people (with another 150 injured) in a stampede at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. And not a single one of them is a police officer.

Among the suspects, the central figure is Yosef Schwinger, director general of the Holy Sites Authority (which is under the auspices of the Religious Services Ministry). He is now under police investigation on suspicion of reckless homicide, a crime punishable by a maximum sentence of 12 years in prison. The other suspects are under investigation for negligent manslaughter, which has a maximum prison sentence of three years.

כך הפך מעבר ריק למלכודת מוות בתוך חמש דקות Credit: התיעוד באדיבות ישראל קרויס

These suspects include the rabbi of holy sites in the north, Rabbi Yisrael Dery; the safety engineer for the compound where the celebrations were held, Amar Khalaila; and the engineer’s assistant, retired police Superintendent Pinhas Azarzar. He served as head of the licensing and security branch of the police’s Northern District, and was responsible for events at Mount Meron.

The suspects, meanwhile, are all pointing an accusing finger back at the police, claiming that they didn’t regulate the flow of people at the site.

Many other questions concerning the actions of the police at the scene and during the celebrations have been left unanswered, along with questions about the actions of the Holy Sites Authority (also known also as the National Center for the Development of the Holy Places), which was in charge of organizing the events.

Here are seven key questions that still remain unanswered...

Why was the passageway where the worshippers were crushed to death not highlighted in advance as a major weak point at the compound?

Police officials and worshippers both said that, for years, the passageway used to exit the bonfire-lighting area of the Toldot Aharon Hasidic sect was known as a narrow space that couldn’t handle all those passing through it. But even though the passageway was built illegally, it served as the main exit point. In spite of the clear dangers, police officers from the Northern District and the safety engineer employed by the Holy Sites Authority did not treat it as a high-risk location.

In March, Khalaila submitted the plan for this year’s celebrations, which senior police officials say was identical to the plan he submitted in previous years. At a meeting held by the Northern District with officials from the Holy Sites Authority, the police chief of the Northern District, Maj. Gen. Shimon Lavi, asked to receive an opinion from a second engineer.

An aerial shot of the where the disaster occurred on a passageway at Mount Meron, northern Israel. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

That same month, the district’s operations officer, Commander Victor Bouskila, sent a letter on behalf of the Holy Sites Authority to those in charge of the celebrations: “An operational need has arisen to receive an opinion of a safety engineer, a second opinion to Khalaila’s opinion,” he wrote. “The safety engineer must provide an opinion on the assembly areas on the mountain, with an emphasis on the [bonfire]-lighting compounds, the families compound and the escape routes.”

Bouskila wrote that, lacking the requested engineering safety opinion, “We will be forced to make decisions concerning the events of the celebrations, all in accordance with operational considerations.”

As far as is known, a second opinion was submitted – but didn’t relate to the dangerous passageway.

Why didn’t the police control the entry of the crowd into the narrow passageway?

Video from the disaster shows a police failure to limit the flow of people who left the bonfire-lighting compound. The police officers did not prevent crowds from entering the passageway, which subsequently turned into a death trap.

According to participants, in previous years tents were set up at the entrance to the passageway to help direct the flow of traffic. However, although tents were erected this year, the police were apparently not present. The lack of police officers at this entrance, or functioning officers, became much more serious once people began to be crushed, since there was no one to prevent more people entering the passageway.

Why weren’t there any police officers, or ushers, at the passageway exit to help rescue victims?

The cameras in the passageway show that at 12:45 A.M., the event occurred that led to the disaster: People fell at the end of the staircase while the crowd was continuing to enter the passage from the bonfire site – but they didn’t know what was happening at the other end. Not a single security guard, police officer or usher could be seen at the end of the passageway to help those who fell – only passersby trying to rescue their friends.

The presence of police at the scene could have helped speed up rescue efforts and maybe even reduced the number of casualties.

Why didn’t the security forces arrive sooner?

According to video footage, it took three minutes after people started being crushed before the first policeman arrived on the scene – alone. It took six minutes before another police officer started taking actual action to try to relieve the pressure – such as breaking the metal sheets that served as the corridor walls. Even though thousands of police officers were present at the celebrations, it took them a long time to arrive at the scene of the disaster.

Emergency workers at the scene of the disaster at Mount Meron at the end of April.Credit: STRINGER /REUTERS

How could the police not have realized what was happening in real time?

The disaster occurred at two main points: The first, and more serious incident, occurred at the end of the staircase where, because of the overcrowding, the tripping and falling led to a crush. The second location was at the end of the sloping path at the beginning of the corridor leading to the stairs. As a result of the attempt to keep the crowd from moving forward, overcrowding started at this point as well – and dozens were also crushed there. It took a long time until the police officers at this location realized what was going on inside the passageway.

The delay was the result of the limited field of vision due to the metal panels that served as the corridor walls – and because of the shortage of police officers at the scene. Even the police command center only learned about the events after Magen David Adom rescue service personnel told them – and even then, the reports were about a disaster caused by the collapse of a structure.

Who is responsible for the Lag Ba’omer celebrations, and why were tens of thousands of people allowed onto the site?

At this stage, all the parties involved are apparently trying to avoid responsibility. It would seem that the commander of the events and operation would be Lavi, the commander of the police’s Northern District. But the Holy Sites Authority is responsible for the events themselves, and it insisted on preserving its monopoly over all aspects of the celebration. However, officials there claim the responsibility for all aspects of public order belonged to the police.

The compound at Mount Meron where the disaster occurred in the early hours of April 30.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Another body, known as the “Committee of Five,” is actually responsible for the entire Meron complex. However, this panel is not responsible for the Lag Ba’omer celebrations there – which stems from a series of decisions made over the years, including by the police.

The committee is made up of two representative of the Sephardi religious trust, two representatives of the Ashkenazi community and a representative of the state – who heads the committee. Since 2014, the head rabbi of the holy places in Israel, Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, has headed this committee. One of the representatives of the Sephardi religious trust said the videos show that “there was no police presence” and asked how the police could “approve the holding of an event with such problematic exits.”

Either way, it was clear to all the groups involved in organizing the events that the Meron complex could not hold more than 20,000 people at any one time. In reality, though, entry over the years was almost unlimited. This year, because of pressure from politicians and public figures, it was not capped at all.

“The enormous number of people was known in advance,” the Sephardi religious trust representative said. “But they still approved the location as the main emergency exit, when they knew it couldn’t contain the crowd. The police and Holy Sites [Authority] also ignored it.”

Police and responders at the scene of the disaster on Mount Meron. Credit: Gil Eliahu

“Everyone knew that on Lag Ba’omer, all the [other] organizations take a step back and the responsibility is that of the Holy Sites [Authority] and the police. But they didn’t function during the disaster and caused it,” he charged, adding: “The thought that, after such a disaster, to give the responsibility for managing the site to a state that so clearly failed is nothing less than insanity.”

How is it possible that police officers didn’t notice the massive overcrowding all over the complex, and why didn’t they stop the crowds from continuing to stream onto the site?

Many of the participants at the event reported that overcrowding was great throughout the entire tomb compound this year, and not just in the passageway where the tragedy unfolded. At the Toldot Aharon bonfire compound, it was also possible to witness the massive overcrowding, with people pushing and climbing on one another. Some of those present said that at certain times they found it hard to breathe, and many actually left the compound because they felt it was simply too dangerous.

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