Israel's government watchdog announced Monday a "special audit" into the Mount Meron stampede last week, where 45 people were crushed to death and over 150 were injured, which he said "could have been prevented."
Speaking at a press conference, State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman said that "We must now examine and see how this incident should have been prevented," citing two reports issued by his office over the past years warning of major risks to pilgrims at the northern Israeli site.
The probe "will also include aspects pertaining to personal liability," Englman added.
Englman's office can examine and make public its findings, but cannot bring criminal charges. Many in Israel have called on the government to form a higher-level committee with greater authority to investigate what happened.
Englman said he hasn't spoken with any politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, since the event, and vowed to conduct an "impartial" inquiry.
He said the probe, which is set to start on Tuesday with a visit to the site, will look into the decision-making process, handling of the Mount Meron tomb site over the years, and handling of mass gatherings in general.
Tens of thousands of Hassidic Jews participated Thursday in the annual Lag Ba'omer festivities at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, making it the largest event held in Israel since the coronavirus pandemic broke out last year. The stampede was caused after some revelers slipped on steps, causing dozens more people to fall over.
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On Sunday, former senior police officials called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to form establish a state commission of inquiry to examine the blunders that led to the tragedy.
"Mount Meron is not under the sole responsibility of the police," the former senior officials wrote in a letter addressed to Netanyahu.
"There's no escape" from forming a commission of inquiry that will "thoroughly examine" the conduct of those who were involved planning the deadly event.
Also on Sunday, Justice Minister Benny Gantz also said he intends to set up a commission of inquiry to investigate the failures that caused the deadly stampede.
Gantz contacted Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit to get a legal opinion authorizing him to set up the committee under a transitional government. He also asked that Supreme Court President Esther Hayut appoint a judge to head the committee and assure the inquiry’s independence.
“Only a state commission of inquiry can deal with all the aspects of investigating the disaster, since it has the broadest powers and will have the tools to make the necessary recommendations,” Gantz said. “Setting up the commission will not bring loved ones back to their families or relieve their pain, but it can prevent such a disaster in the future.”
In 2008 and again in 2011, then-State Comptroller Micha Lindenstraus published reports that implicitly warned of a potential disaster on Mount Meron.
One report noted that the site of the tomb was not properly prepared to accommodate mass gatherings.
In the 2008 report, the State Comptroller’s Office said that "all of the building additions and changes made to the tomb site and around it had been done without the approval of the local and district planning and building committees."
The report alleged that the regional council, which is the local government at the site, “had refrained from overseeing the issues at the site and issuing demolition orders."