After each multiple-victim civilian disaster in Israel in recent decades, the identity of the people responsible could clearly be noted. The courts did so, convicting those responsible in cases such as the collapse of a floor at a Jerusalem wedding hall in 2001, and the collapse of a bridge during the Maccabiah Games in 1997.
Two decades later, in the 2018 tragedy in which students drowned in a flash flood, the state has pushed liability on a principal and guide who didn’t heed warnings about such a possibility.
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There are also culpable parties in the disaster Thursday night in which 45 people were crushed to death during the Lag Ba’omer festivities on Mount Meron. In this catastrophe, the list of responsible parties is particularly long, because even though this site attracts over 1.5 million visitors a year, a third of them at Lag Ba’omer, it’s managed by religious nonprofit groups that don’t recognize the state’s right to help manage the site.
Two state comptroller reports from 2018 and 2019 note that Israel’s laws don’t apply to the area around the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. As early as 13 years ago, the comptroller warned that the site is a safety hazard unsuitable for mass events. Meanwhile, a number of ultra-Orthodox officials have turned to the media, asking for warnings to be issued.
But no one was listening. In 2011, it seemed the state realized that it must take over management of the site, and in 2013, the finance minister announced his intention to expropriate the area around the tomb. But in 2020, a compromise was reached at the High Court of Justice, with the state suspending its plan for at least three years.
If the authorities including those responsible for public order had heeded the warnings and acted responsibly, the Lag Ba’omer events wouldn’t have been held in their current format. Since these events were held year after year, despite the reports and warnings, a thorough investigation is required.
An internal investigation by law enforcement agencies isn’t enough. The serious failure of holding these events requires a state commission of inquiry that would investigate in depth all the circumstances that led to the disaster, including a reexamination of the compound’s extraterritorial status. And mainly, it would explore the politicians’ contribution to the catastrophe through their inaction, neglect and yielding to pressure.
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In the days before Thursday, ultra-Orthodox lawmakers applied pressure to hold the event without any coronavirus restrictions as stipulated by the Health Ministry, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu acceded to these requests. There must be an investigation into whether political pressure thwarted thorough procedures, with the event being held despite clear safety hazards.
Only when a complete picture emerges on those responsible for the ongoing failure will it be possible to prevent the next disaster. Until then, mass events at the site must be suspended.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.