The commission of inquiry into the fatal accident at the Jewish pilgrimage site in April is holding the first hearing.
An Israeli government commission investigating a fatal accident at a Jewish pilgrimage site in April held its first hearing, nearly four months after the stampede at Mount Meron killed 45 people.
The April 29 incident on the Jewish holiday in northern Israel was the deadliest civil disaster in the country’s history. About 100,000 worshipers, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, attended the festivities despite coronavirus regulations limiting outdoor gatherings to 500, and despite longstanding warnings about the site’s security.
Hundreds of people congested in a narrow passage going down the mountain, and a slippery slope caused people to stumble and fall. The resulting human avalanche killed 45 people and injured at least 150.
In June, the Israeli government approved the formation of an independent state commission of inquiry to investigate security breaches during the Lag Baomer celebrations at Mount Meron.
A panel led by former Supreme Court justice Miriam Naor began proceedings on Sunday with testimony from Northern District Police Chief Shimon Lavi, the officer handling the event.
Lavi said the Mount Meron festivities are the Israel Police’s most important annual event, requiring significant resources, planning and preparation.
He said that for safety reasons, “there has been no restriction on attendance at Meron, this is how it has been done for the past 30 years.” Any attempt to restrict entry and erect barricades could lead to “bottlenecks and far more serious disasters,” he said.
The site in northern Israel is believed to be the burial site of the famous 2nd century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. The funeral complex and adjacent structures are managed by the Holy Places Department of the Ministry of Religious Services.
Experts had long warned that the Mount Meron complex was insufficiently equipped to cope with the huge crowds that flocked there during spring break, and that existing infrastructure posed a security risk.
But the April rally continued this year nonetheless as powerful ultra-Orthodox politicians reportedly pressured then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other government officials to lift participation restrictions.
Lavi said there had been “neglect for many years” and “a lack of understanding that the event developed over time and that the infrastructure was not adequate, rather a kind of Pad”.