The safety consultant to the agency running this week’s annual Lag Ba’omer festivities at Mount Meron resigned three weeks ago, as his warnings that the site wasn’t prepared to handle the number of people expected on Wednesday and Thursday were ignored.
Sources in both the police and government ministries said the consultant, Kfir Malka, also charged that decisions about the festivities were being influenced by outside interests and political considerations.
At last year’s event, 45 people died in a crowd stampede due to a lack of proper preparation.
Malka is a veteran safety consultant who has worked on mass events in the past. The agency running the hilula, a kind of Jewish revival meeting, hired him a few months ago to provide advice on the event, which is slated to take place on Wednesday. His job was to advise the person in charge of the hilula, former senior police officer Zviki Tessler, who was appointed by outgoing Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana.
The sources said Malka had warned that the infrastructure at the site is in terrible shape and isn’t ready to handle the 16,000 people who are being allowed to attend this year. Three weeks ago, after his advice wasn’t accepted, he resigned.
Avi Blumenthal, who is handling public relations for the hilula, said that Malka, a consultant paid by the hour, “voiced dissatisfaction with the state of the infrastructure on the mount as it was two months ago, but since then, significant infrastructure work has been done.” He added that Tessler “didn’t hear anything at all from him about the number of participants, and in any event, all his comments and recommendations will be implemented.”
Malka declined to comment.
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Senior police officers warned Monday that despite the restriction on the number of participants, tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people are likely to come to Meron, either by sneaking in through side entrances or by using forged tickets. Moreover, participants are likely to remain at the site for longer than the permitted four hours.
Police are also worried that ultra-Orthodox extremists might try to “sabotage” the hilula, to quote the word used by several senior officers. They have already dealt with several acts of vandalism at the site in recent days.
On Sunday, the commander of the police’s Northern District, Shimon Lavi, toured the site together with senior police officers and the event’s organizers. Tessler was accompanied by bodyguards, since extremists have threatened him due to the restriction imposed on the number of participants.
Many agencies are involved in organizing the hilula, including the police, Religious Services Ministry and Transportation Ministry. But Kahana said Monday that he bears ultimate responsibility.
“To the question of who is responsible for the hilula, I answer that I am,” he said during a tour of the site. “I led the preparations for this event.
“This year is a unique year,” he continued. “We are under the heavy shadow of what happened here last year, and the agencies preparing this hilula are still under investigation by a commission of inquiry. Therefore, this year, we’re being doubly cautious, and I urge the public to understand that this year is a unique year in which we’re taking extra safety measures.”
In contrast to previous years, when different Hasidic sects built around 25 different bonfires at the site, this year, only one main bonfire will be permitted.
The police have deployed 8,000 officers and Border Police, helicopters and other means of crowd control in preparation for the hilula.
As opposed to previous years when police were in charge of crowd control, this year the producers of the event are responsible for limiting the number of participants. Police said they will intervene only in cases where force is needed to make participants leave the site. They compared this year’s event to a concert in which the producers are required to provide ushers to manage the crowd.
The Lag Ba’omer holiday traditionally draws massive crowds to Mount Meron in northern Israel, where the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is located. Despite the magnitude of the event, preparation for it has been notoriously negligent for years.
Last year, 45 people died and some 150 were injured when a stampede developed on a narrow pathway after some revelers slipped on steps, making many others fall on top of each other, crushing the victims.
Last week a safety plan based on the recommendations of the official state commission of inquiry investigating the disaster was approved by the Knesset Public Security Committee.
The number of visitors to the site will be limited to only 16,000 compared to 70,000 in past years. Each visitor will be allowed to remain at the site for a maximum of four hours and be allowed entry only by presenting a bus ticket, issued by the Transportation Ministry, indicating a specific time.
Every participant will receive a bracelet in a color that represents their time of entry. Buses will run on a frequent schedule to transport people from the site.
Police said they will use all means to ensure that buses leave the site only after all revelers whose time is up are on board. Anyone refusing to leave after four hours will be removed by force, if necessary.
Lavi said police have been monitoring extremist groups who protest this year’s arrangements and may cause disturbances.
Over the past days, police detained several people suspected of vandalizing infrastructure at the site. Two other men were arrested for selling fake tickets to the event. “Attempts like these harm the public. We expect mutual responsibility from attendees. Those who try to sabotage the event will be punished with the full severity of the law,” Lavi said.