A Year After the Meron Stampede, Israel Has Yet to Approve Help for the Survivors

Some still suffer from physical injuries, some stopped working, and all still bear psychological scars. Until the government authorizes compensation, the injured have been left alone to cope with their challenges

Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz
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A man sitting on the pavement in the immediate aftermath of the Meron disaster, April 29, 2021.
A man sitting on the pavement in the immediate aftermath of the Meron disaster, April 29, 2021.Credit: Rami Shllush
Aaron Rabinowitz
Aaron Rabinowitz

The scenes of April 29, 2021 still haunt Dvir Cohen. Even a year later, they recur every time he shuts his eyes. Especially the faces of the people lying near him in that pile of bodies on Mount Meron.

“With every moment that passed, the weight of the bodies increased,” he recalled on Tuesday. “I heard shouting, people near me changed colors and stopped breathing.”

But though he’ll never forget their faces, he said, “I don’t want to know their names.”

Not far from him lay Tamir Moshe Sarim, a married father of seven from the southern town of Tena. He lost consciousness for a long time, but survived. He can’t remember most of what happened that night, but two flashbacks keep recurring.

Despite being 53, he says he is celebrating his first birthday this year. “Since I was already among the dead and returned to life, I feel as if I had been reborn,” he explained.

Shlomo (not his real name), a 24-year-old father of one, was also in that pile of the dead. A friend lying nearby was spared the difficult sights because he was unconscious, but Shlomo saw everything, “and it leaves me no peace.”

The lives of Shlomo, Tamir, Dvir and all the other people injured in the state’s worst civilian disaster – the deadly stampede at last year’s annual Lag Ba’omer festivities on Mount Meron, which killed 45 people and wounded around 150 – were changed completely by it. Some still suffer from physical injuries, some stopped working, and all still bear psychological scars. Families have fallen apart.

Even though the state contributed significantly to this disaster, which is being investigated by a state commission of inquiry, it hasn’t yet approved any compensation for the injured. Even compensation for the families of the dead was only approved last week – 500,000 shekels ($150,000) per family.

Dvir Cohen: 'There were dead people above me, dead people below me. This will never leave me.'

Sources involved in the issue said the National Insurance Institute presented a plan for compensating the injured, but the Finance Ministry opposed it. (This compensation would be on top of any benefits they are entitled to due to disability). And until the government authorizes compensation, the injured have been left alone to cope with their challenges.

Dvir, from Jerusalem, is a 26-year-old father of two. His life is divided into before and after the disaster.

Before it, he lived a typical ultra-Orthodox lifestyle – studying full-time in yeshiva while his wife worked in a bank. Now he no longer attends yeshiva and is dependent on his wife’s nursing. He certainly can’t go shopping or take the children to day care.

Moreover, he has needed endless medical procedures. This requires spending limitless time obtaining documents and approvals from medical committees and waiting for doctors.

The moments he spent lying in that heap of bodies seemed like forever. It was a long time before rescuers finally extricated him.

At Ziv Medical Center, where he was taken for treatment, doctors told him his injuries resembled those of a man crushed under a 1.5-ton weight. To this day, he requires crutches, can’t feel his thigh and suffers from back pain and breathing problems.

Dvir went to Meron for Lag Ba’omer every year. Last year, he arrived just moments before the disaster occurred. He entered the Toldot Aharon sect’s compound, realized it was unusually crowded and tried to escape down a flight of stairs. That is where the stampede happened.

“There were dead people below me, there were dead people above me. This will never leave me,” he said.

Tamir Moshe Sarim, 53, is celebrating his first birthday: 'Because I was among the dead and came back to life, I feel I've been reborn.'Credit: Ilan Assayag

To support their family over the last year, Dvir and his wife used the money they were saving to buy an apartment and took out loans. Recently, he even stopped his medical and psychological treatments because the money had run out.

“I’m not seeking to get rich off this story,” he said. “I just want to live. I would have preferred to work and earn money rather than needing the NII to give me a few shekels a month.”

He said he is also speaking on behalf of the other injured. “There are people whose homes have fallen apart and they can’t cope, not physically and not psychologically.”

The NII said that by law, it can’t pay two stipends simultaneously. Dvir requested and received payment as an accident victim, but then he also sought a disability allowance, and paying both was legally impossible. Nevertheless, it added, “In another two days, a retroactive payment of tens of thousands of shekels will be deposited directly into his account.”

Tamir, a psychologist by training, was wounded in a terror attack 20 years ago and has been on crutches ever since. He too regularly attended the annual festivities at Meron.

Last year he arrived early and found a seat in the Toldot Aharon compound when it was still empty. Immersed in prayer, he didn’t notice how crowded it had become. When he finally did, he tried to leave via the fatal staircase.

“I don’t remember much, only that there was a huge press of people,” he said. Only after he regained consciousness did someone tell him he had been found in a pile of bodies.

An aerial shot of the passageway where the disaster occured.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

His rescuer, who wasn’t a medic, tried to revive him for several minutes without success, then summoned a medic, who immediately evacuated him while continuing efforts to resuscitate him. He was taken first to a clinic, then to Ziv and finally, by helicopter, to Rambam Medical Center in Haifa.

Immediately after the disaster, government officials tried to help, but later, he was forgotten, he said. He blames the current government, saying that since it was established, around six weeks after the disaster, “there has been radio silence.”

Tamir suffers from cognitive problems and insomnia and didn’t work for six months before finally concluding he couldn’t keep going like that. But he’ll never regain his old capabilities. “Today, to remember something, I have to write it down,” he said.

“Effectively, they’ve told us, ‘Spend the money and then claim it from the NII,’” he said. “But it’s not reasonable for them to leave us to deal with everything alone… There’s no ministry in charge, no phone number to call, no information center for the injured, nothing.”

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