Site of Meron disaster was ‘Band-Aid’, suffering ‘neglect for many years,’ commission hears on first day of testimonies

Some 45 men and boys lost their lives and at least 150 were injured at Mount Meron on April 30, in Israel’s largest civilian disaster.

By Donna Rachel Edmunds, World Israel News

Infrastructure at the Mount Meron site, the scene of Israel’s largest civilian disaster, was “a kind of Band-Aid” that had been suffering “neglect for many years,” a government-commissioned inquiry has heard, as proceedings opened Sunday morning.

Each year, thousands flock to Mount Meron in northern Israel, thought to be the burial place of the second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, to mark Lag B’Omer. Some 100,000 people attended this year’s event, mostly ultra-orthodox Jews.

But a slippery slope situated in a bottleneck among the barricades turned deadly in the early hours of April 30, as some lost their footing and were crushed by those behind them. Some 45 men and boys lost their lives and at least 150 were injured, dozens critically.

The first to give testimony before the three-person panel was Northern District police chief Shimon Lavi, the officer in charge of managing the event.

Levi told the panel that “there has been no limitation on attendance at Meron — that’s how it has been done for the last 30 years,” a decision, he said that had been taken for safety reasons as any attempt to limit attendance and put up barriers could result in “bottlenecks and much greater disasters.”

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Experts have long warned that existing infrastructure at the tomb complex and adjoining structures, which are managed by the Religious Services Ministry’s department for holy places, posed a safety risk as the complex lacked the means to adequately handle the huge crowds that convene each year.

The site had suffered “neglect for many years,” Lavi added, saying that there had been “a lack of understanding that the event grew over time and that the infrastructure was not adequate, but rather a kind of Band-Aid.”

This year, additional concerns were raised over the spreading of coronavirus at the event, but pressure was reportedly brought to bear by Ultra-Orthodox politicians on then prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other ministers to forgo restrictions.

The committee has provoked anger among some in the Ultra-Orthodox community, who fear being blamed for the disaster. The families of the victims, however, have welcomed the inquiry, chaired by former Chief Justice Miriam Naor.

Naor was picked, according to a government statement, for her stature as the former head of the judicial branch, and for her experience in handling complex matters, The Jerusalem Post has reported.

She is joined by Rabbi Mordechai Karlitz, former mayor of Bnei Brak, who has experience in building and design, as well as involvement with Meron events and the integration of the Ultra-Orthodox community into the army.

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The third member of the pane is IDF Maj.-Gen. (res.) Shlomo Yanai, selected for his expertise in planning and logistics, both in military and civilian settings.

According to the Times of Israel, The commission has called on five other officials to appear in addition to Lavi: Rabbi Shmuel Rabinovitch, the rabbi of the Western Wall and the Holy Sites of Israel; former Israel Police deputy commissioner Alon Asur; Yosef Schwinger, head of the National Center for the Development of Holy Places; Yisrael Deri, the head of the northern branch of the National Center for the Development of Holy Places; and Eli Friend, manager of the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.