Israel Police Chief Deflects Blame for Meron Disaster

Police chief Kobi Shabtai, whose testimony may determine the future of his position, blames the police's northern district for the stampede which killed 45 people last year

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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Police chief Kobi Shabtai, center, in Jerusalem over the weekend.
Police chief Kobi Shabtai, center, in Jerusalem over the weekend.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

Israel Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai placed the blame for the fatal Mount Meron stampede on the police's Northern District.

Testifying before the state commission of inquiry into the Mount Meron disaster on Monday, Shabtai said: "Preparation for Meron was always done by the Northern District.

"Like the Tel Aviv Marathon, this is an event on the district level. There is a commissioner who knows the field better than anyone."

Shabtai said he was under the impression that the head of the Northern District, Shimon Lavi, was fully prepared for the event, adding that he had "full confidence in his skills then and today."

He emphasized that while responsibility for the event does fall on police, it doesn't make him responsible for the disaster.

Other senior police officers who testified earlier have argued that he bears at least part of the blame. But Shabtai claims that their testimony was driven by personal considerations and that they took some of his statements out of context.

Shabtai is the commission’s most important witness to date. His testimony was supposed to be given two weeks ago, but was postponed due to the recent string of terror attacks and Shabtai's coronavirus diagnosis.

Criticizing the government, Shabtai said that "there was an inability and may unwillingness by the government to regulate the site. I warned … that an attempt to enforce COVID restrictions at the entrance to the site would have let to a disaster."

Officers who have already testified have accused him of ignoring their warnings, saying he didn’t take their concerns about the large number of people expected at the festivities seriously.

On this note, Shabtai said that "overcrowding is a familiar scenario... The whole outline of the even plan is based on it," adding that "No one presented unresolved difficulties that necessitated not approving the plan, or any alternatives."

Maj. Gen. (ret.) Amnon Alkalay, who was the police’s chief of operations at the time, said in his testimony that he had warned of the danger at a meeting with Shabtai 11 days beforehand.

“I recommended a plan that would limit the number of people at the bonfires, but the commissioner rejected the idea completely,” he told the panel.

He also said that a few hours before that meeting, he had informed Shabtai that he planned to leave the police because he was unhappy with the way the commissioner made decisions. The Mount Meron incident, he said, exemplified the problem.

Another senior officer who blamed Shabtai was Shimon Nahmani, head of the police’s operations division. He also said he had warned the commissioner that failing to limit the number of participants at the bonfires would be dangerous and told him he should discuss the issue and visit the site before making a decision. Shabtai responded by saying, “Don’t worry, the commission of inquiry will be on me,” Nahmani said.

“I was troubled by the decision that the mount would be open [to all],” Nahmani added. “We tried to get restrictions on the event.”

Shabtai has been preparing for his testimony, which could determine the fate of his job, for months.

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