Five Days On, Israeli Agencies Still Can't Question People Involved in Mount Meron Disaster

Organizations are waiting on the attorney general to decide who will run the probe, while officials from agencies who have been blamed have consulted criminal defense attorneys

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
Police at the scene of the disaster at Mount Meron, on Friday.
Police at the scene of the disaster at Mount Meron, on Friday.Credit: Rami Shllush
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

Five days after the lethal disaster at Mount Meron, the attorney general still hasn’t given any of the three agencies investigating the incident the authority to question or subpoena people involved in preparing or running the event.

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There are currently no plans to investigate anyone as a suspect in the deaths of the 45 worshipers who were crushed to death on a stairwell near the site of a bonfire run by the Toldos Aharon Hasidic sect. Bonfires on Mount Meron, where the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is located, are a traditional way of celebrating the Lag Ba’omer holiday.

Nevertheless, officials from the police, the Religious Services Ministry and the National Center for the Development of Holy Places – the agency that runs Mount Meron – have all consulted criminal defense attorneys in recent days.

“Everyone is waiting for the attorney general’s decision about which agency will investigate,” a law enforcement source said. “In the current situation, we can’t move forward.”

Some police officers think Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit is waiting to see whether the cabinet decides to set up a state commission of inquiry. The cabinet is currently the only body that can do so.

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai and other police officials would like to have a state commission investigate the incident to divert fire from Northern District police officers, who handled security at the event.

The three agencies currently investigating the disaster are the police’s Lahav 433 unit, the Justice Ministry department that investigates police misconduct and the state comptroller, who began his probe on Tuesday.

State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman lights a memorial candle at the scene of the Mount Meron disaster, Tuesday.Credit: Gil Eliahu

On Monday, police investigators collected material from the Religious Services Ministry related to management of the annual festivities at Mount Meron. Over the past few days, they have gathered dozens of documents related to the incident itself as well as documents about the site’s management in recent years.

The Justice Ministry department has gathered documents from the police’s Northern District, the police post on Mount Meron and other police sources, as well as collecting the security cameras police operated at the site.

For now, both agencies are primarily engaged in what they term “mapping out the material and the investigation,” in an effort to break it down into sections. These sections include the people responsible for the actual incident that caused the deaths; the police’s preparations at Mount Meron in general and at the Toldos Aharon compound in particular; the police’s order of operations for the event; the people responsible for building the stairwell and the walkway leading to it, where the deaths occurred; issues related to the site’s operation in general; and issues related to management of the Lag Ba’omer festivities specifically.

“A situation has been created in which so many bodies are investigating the incident, and this causes unnecessary duplication and may well undermine the investigation,” a different law enforcement source said.

“We’re all waiting to see whether there will be some kind of official inquiry commission, either governmental or state,” this source added. “But the situation this has created, in which no testimony has been taken from anyone in such a serious incident, is something I can’t remember ever happening.”

People gather at the site of the Mount Meron disaster, Sunday.Credit: Amir Levy

Some law enforcement officials think the entire investigation should be handed over to the police, or alternatively, that a special joint investigative task force should be created. But Mendelblit said over the weekend that he opposed this.

“It’s clear this case is several sizes too big for Mahash,” one source said, referring to the Justice Ministry department that investigates police misconduct by its Hebrew acronym. “They don’t have any expertise in investigating such a complex matter, which includes, for instance, planning and engineering issues. This matter needs someone with experience, but also with teeth.”

And some senior Justice Ministry officials think there’s no reason for the department to be involved in the investigation when it’s not yet clear what role police played in the incident.

Some people involved in investigating the incident have been required to sign a confidentiality form.

Over the past few days, all three of the investigating agencies have received material accusing various people involved in management of the site and the festivities. This material is widely thought to have come from rival groups within the ultra-Orthodox community.

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