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Former Chief Justice Naor to head Meron disaster probe with sweeping mandate

The government’s taskforce probing the April 30 disaster at Mount Meron, which left 45 people dead and over 150 wounded, will be led by former Chief Justice Miriam Naor, it was announced on Sunday.

The three-member commission will also include former Bnei Brak mayor Rabbi Mordechai Karelitz and former IDF planning chief Maj. Gen. (res.) Shlomo Yanai.

At its first official meeting on June 20, the cabinet approved a proposal submitted by Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman to establish a governmental commission of inquiry into the disaster.

The taskforce’s members were appointed by the current Chief Justice Esther Hayut.

The new body was tasked by the government with conducting a detailed probe of the disaster and recommending specific changes to the holy site, which hosts a yearly celebration in honor of the second-century sage Shimon Bar Yochai that draws hundreds of thousands and is believed to be the largest single annual Jewish event in the world.

But the commission is also tasked with issuing recommendations for proper policies and regulations for mass events, especially religious ones, beyond Meron.

Karelitz, the Haredi member of the panel, also served on the Tal Committee, which sought a compromise on the military draft of Haredi youth.

In the announcement of the new members, Hayut wrote that Karelitz combined long experience in planning and construction with “great expertise in the religious experience surrounding the Rashbi celebration.”

Karelitz’s appointment comes after the June 20 cabinet decision called for the committee to take account of the religious context and sensitivities of the investigation, noting that the Meron pilgrimage is attended mostly by Haredim and that most of the victims were Haredi.

Yanai has served as head of the army’s Southern Command and its Planning Directorate. Since leaving the army, he has served as a corporate CEO and chaired a nonprofit that helps troubled youth.

The commission will have a budget of NIS 6 million ($1.83 million), and will investigate — in coordination with the attorney general and other ongoing parallel investigations — how the disaster unfolded, and probe the decision-making processes that authorized the event.

According to the proposal from Gantz and Liberman, which was accepted by the cabinet, the mandate of the taskforce will be to investigate “the entirety of professional and legal questions regarding safety procedures at religious rites and the public venues that host them, particularly events that involve mass participation.” It will also seek to establish the tools “at the disposal of government and other authorities to enable effective and sound use of venues.”

In welcoming the appointments, Gantz said Sunday that the committee’s conclusions “will save lives in the future.”

The commission is expected to investigate the conduct and decision-making of former public security minister Amir Ohana, former interior minister Aryeh Deri, and former housing minister Yaakov Litzman, who all were in office at the time of the incident, according to Hebrew media reports. Deri and Litzman have fought against the formation of the commission.

A Channel 12 report last week said that other officials who are expected to be probed by the taskforce include Israel Police Commissioner Yaakov Shabtai and Northern District Police Chief Shimon Lavi.

Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz, chairman of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation, who was selected to lead a committee in charge of the site last year, is also expected to be questioned, alongside Yossi Schwinger, head of the National Center for the Development of Holy Places, the government body formally in charge of the place, for not adequately ensuring safety at the site.

The cabinet also decided that the Welfare Ministry would assist and accompany the families of the victims in obtaining compensation and that the taskforce would issue interim reports on its progress as needed.

The tragedy occurred on April 30, as thousands celebrating Lag B’Omer at Bar Yochai’s gravesite streamed through a narrow walkway. The passage was covered with metal flooring, which may have been wet, causing some people to fall underfoot during the rush for the exit.

Some apparently fell on the walkway and down a flight of stairs at its end, toppling onto those below and precipitating a fatal crushing domino effect.

In a separate incident several weeks later, two people were killed and more than 150 hurt when a bleacher collapsed under celebrants in a Givat Ze’ev synagogue just before the start of the Shavuot festival. Last week, a third victim succumbed to wounds sustained in the collapse.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who oversaw the cabinet meeting during which the commission was approved, said at the time that the decision was critical.

“Forty-five people lost their lives in that awful disaster and the responsibility for learning the lessons and preventing the next disaster is on our shoulders,” Bennett said.

“A commission cannot bring back those who have perished, but the government can do everything to prevent unnecessary loss of life in the future.”

Source: TOI

Header: Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Judge Miriam Naor at the Supreme Court in Jerusalem, August 31, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)