The Religious Services Ministry's legal advisor Galia Klein testified before an investigative committee on Tuesday that former Interior Minister Aryeh Dery was the one who made the pivotal decisions leading up to April's deadly stampede on Mount Meron, and not the acting religious services minister at the time, Yaakov Avitan.
“In the aspects with which the religious affairs minister worked with me, I can say that there was involvement by the interior minister’s bureau," Klein said. "On the matter of the hilulah [religious festival] the message I received was that the interior minister was very much involved, and he was the one who sets the tone.”
45 men and boys were killed and about 150 were injured, the worst civilian disaster in Israeli history.
“Minister Avitan was less involved, he was more Dery’s arm,” Klein said. “Not only regarding the events at Meron, but also regarding appointments,” she added.
Klein testified that when she called Avitan to inform him that appointments which he had signed off on without authority were about to be cancelled, he told her that he had to consult on the matter. “I didn’t always see that he used independent judgement – and I’m trying to say these things gently. From my point of view the minister was not the address, but rather, the director-general, who knew to speak with Dery.”
Klein added that the previous religious affairs minister, Yitzhak Vaknin, was more involved in decision-making. “My impression was that when decisions or directives had to be issued, the man was Dery. I remarked on this to the director-general and he answered that Dery was responsible for [dealing with] the coronavirus in the ultra-Orthodox public, and therefore he is the one who makes the decisions. That seemed reasonable to me,” she added.
The legal advisor to the National Center for the Development of the Holy Places, Erez Ben-David, also testified that the police were tasked with overall responsibility for the event at Meron. “Not for nothing does the permit for the event come under its authority. After all, it has a whole department for dealing with this. All the arrows point to the Israel Police; transportation, public order, permits. The center can’t be responsible for everything through a producer because these are powers that it doesn’t have.”
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The director of security in the Meron compound during the event, Yoram Abitbul, described the security arrangement at the site as chaotic. “I asked ‘why are we, the security directors, not in the preparations and the exercises; why didn’t I see with my own eyes the police order, why didn’t I know the police.’ They told me ‘do what you need to do,’” he said. “If it had been up to me, I wouldn’t have come and fulfilled that role. The responsibility is heavy. If I were responsible, I would have stopped everything, I wouldn’t have let anything happen.”
A business-permits advisor further explained to the committee that permits for events like the one at Meron are rarely organized. “There was a discussion led by the attorney general in which the attempt was made to sketch the boundaries” of the various agencies involved, “but no conclusion or document emerged from the meeting,” he said.
“In all events that don’t require a permit, the police become the body in charge of the permit, although it is not interested in doing so. Because they manage the event, the police finds itself chasing after permits because if something goes wrong, that will land on its doorstep. Although most of the efforts are invested in plans before the event, what is most important in the end is crowd management.”