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Meron disaster commission begins investigation, orders documents handed over

The government’s taskforce probing the April 30 disaster at Mount Meron — which left 45 people dead and over 150 injured — began its work on Sunday, issuing an order to the Attorney General to hand over documents related to the planning of the event.

Former chief justice Miriam Naor, who heads the state commission of inquiry, ordered Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to provide within 30 days all documentation from government meetings ahead of the Lag B’Omer festival at the pilgrimage site.

The Attorney General will also supply internal government reports, in the aftermath of Israel’s deadliest civilian disaster, that attempted to address whether it could have been averted.

Naor will also meet with Mandelblit to discuss the scope of the probe, to ensure it does not conflict with the criminal investigation into the disaster.

Among the documents that Mandelblit was asked to hand over are those from internal ministry deliberations, messages and records of conversations, and all documents that were created in the wake of the disaster including dissections of what happened and any conclusions drawn.

Naor also noted that the National Center for the Development of Holy Places, Merom HaGalil Regional Council, and the committee that administers Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s Tomb, where the disaster happened, will be required to hand over all documents dealing with preparations for the festival and those from reviews made afterwards.

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.

The three-member commission also consists of former Bnei Brak mayor Rabbi Mordechai Karelitz and former IDF planning chief Maj. Gen. (res.) Shlomo Yanai. The taskforce’s members were appointed by current Chief Justice Esther Hayut.

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 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.

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 last month 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.

Last month the Kan public broadcasters reported that two senior ultra-Orthodox officials were questioned under caution by police about the Meron incident.

Those questioned were “operations officers” for the Toldos Aharon Hasidic sect who had a major part in organizing Toldos Aharon’s compound at the Lag B’Omer event in Meron, where the disaster happened.

The report said the pair had been questioned for many hours and were suspected of negligent homicide.

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 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 month, a third victim succumbed to wounds sustained in the collapse.

Source: TOI