JERUSALEM (VINnews/Sandy Eller) – Hours after celebrations in Meron evolved into an unfathomable mass casualty event that took 45 lives and left more than 100 injured, Israeli Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has launched an investigation into whether police members were to blame for the tragedy.
Ynet (https://bit.ly/3vtWj8U) reported that Major General Shimon Lavi, commander of the Israeli police’s northern district, said he accepted full responsibility for the catastrophe and that evidence is being collected in order to determine exactly what went wrong. 5,000 police officers were reportedly sent to Meron to control the crowd which numbered well over 200,000. Officials had anticipated an extremely large turnout after last year’s Lag B’Omer festivities were banned because of COVID.
But an unnamed police official shifted the blame, saying that Lavi had expressed safety concerns for children in regard to certain barriers that were being used and refused to allow completely unlimited access to Meron during a meeting with those the celebration’s organizers. The police source also said that government officials approved the corridor where overcrowding turned into a deadly stampede and made the decision to allow an extremely large number of participants to flock to Meron.
According to Arutz Sheva (https://bit.ly/3t8h0Wv), eyewitnesses reported that police had blocked an exit near at the bottom of the inclined corridor where the stampede took place, an area that was known to create dangerous bottlenecks. Police reportedly also blocked off a staircase at the bottom of the walkway for unknown reasons, another factor that may have contributed to overcrowding in the area.
The Police Department for Internal Affairs requested that an investigation be carried out by a third party, with police officers instructed not to interview any of their personnel about the incident. The attorney general’s office is expected to focus on why the event was allowed to go on even after police expressed concerns about crowd size and why improvements weren’t made to allows safer access to site, given the number of participants expected.
The Lag B’Omer celebrations at Meron are plagued each year by overcrowding. Journalist Arye Erlich advocated for the single exit route from the holy site to prevent future tragedy, penning a 2018 Charedim10 article bearing the headline “Who will prevent the disaster during the lighting ceremony.” According to The Jerusalem Post (https://bit.ly/3gPFm4P), a 2016 police report found that Meron’s infrastructure and size could not possibly accommodate the crowds that flock there each year.
“The area of the site is not appropriate for the event,” warned the report. “The crowd that comes to the mountain is excited and includes people of all ages and at the time of a disaster it would be difficult to control.”