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Families of Meron victims call for official state inquiry into disaster

A forum of families of the Merom disaster victims appealed late Sunday to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to establish a state commission of inquiry into the deadly crush at a religious festival last month that killed 45 people, including many children.

The group sent a letter to Netanyahu on the eve of a Monday meeting of the Knesset Arrangements Committee that is set to vote on the issue.

“We want to say in a loud, clear, and unequivocal voice that cannot be misinterpreted, all the families as one, that we are demanding an independent state commission of inquiry,” the letter said.

“We are convinced that only a state commission of inquiry can thoroughly and completely investigate this,” it said.

It was unclear if Netanyahu would allow a proposal to form a commission come before the government for approval.

While the premier has said he backs a thorough investigation, he has not taken up calls to back an official state commission of inquiry, with critics saying he fears the political fallout.

No arrests have been made since the April 30 tragedy, the deadliest civilian disaster in Israel’s history, which is being investigated by the Israel Police.

The discussion in the Arrangements Committee was called by the Yesh Atid party, whose leader Yair Lapid is seeking to replace Netanyahu as prime minister following the March elections.

Yesh Atid said it would seek to fast-track a bill to form a state commission to investigate the disaster.

Yesh Atid could have a majority for the bill.

On Wednesday the head of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party threw his backing behind an official commission of inquiry, which would be led by a Supreme Court justice.

UTJ MK Moshe Gafni, who chairs the Knesset Finance Committee, also sent a letter to Netanyahu saying that would be the “correct way” to investigate the disaster during Lag B’Omer celebrations at Mount Meron in northern Israel.

“I also believe that this is the right way to obtain a legal solution regarding the sanctuaries and ownership at Meron, as well as comfort for the families of the dead,” he wrote in the letter.

He asked Netanyahu to have the government begin advancing a proposal to establish a state commission that will investigate the disaster and “make recommendations that will allow for the regulation of the site in terms of halacha [Jewish law], engineering and safety.”

Wednesday’s letter appeared to mark a reversal for Gafni, whose party is part of Netanyahu’s right-wing religious bloc.

Earlier this month, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced that a joint investigative team from the Israel Police and the Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department will lead a probe into the deadly incident.

Police and the PIID had already launched independent probes. State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman has also announced that he will investigate.

Englman, who was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s pick for state comptroller elected by the Knesset in 2019, denied that he had been asked by the premier or his office to initiate the probe. amid concerns that he initiated the investigation to head off the formation of a formal state commission of inquiry.

Englman’s investigation does not have the authority to compel witnesses to testify, nor to issue binding conclusions — only recommendations.

A state commission, by contrast, is headed by a former or current senior judge, and its recommendations, though not formally binding either, carry far greater weight.

There have been increasing demands for a state commission of inquiry into the tragedy, with the focus directed at the organization of the annual Lag B’Omer events at Mount Meron.

The disaster, which began around 1 a.m. on April 30 near the gravesite of the second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, took place when huge crowds of ultra-Orthodox pilgrims were making their way along a narrow walkway with a slippery metal flooring that ended in flights of stairs.

People began to slip and fall, others fell upon them, and a calamitous crush ensued.

The site, the second-most visited religious site in Israel after the Western Wall, has become an extraterritorial zone of sorts, with separate ultra-Orthodox sects organizing their own events and their own access arrangements, with no overall supervision and with police routinely pressured by cabinet ministers and ultra-Orthodox politicians not to object.

Former police officials have said there had been fears for years that tragedy could strike as a result of the massive crowds and lack of supervision on Lag B’Omer.

Multiple reports in Hebrew media outlets indicated that there had been immense pressure by religious lawmakers ahead of the festivities to ensure that there would be no limits placed on the number of attendees due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Some 100,000 mostly ultra-Orthodox pilgrims ultimately attended the event. A framework drawn up by the Health Ministry, in consultation with other government officials, police and others, would have limited the event to 9,000 participants but was not implemented.

Source: TOI