JERUSALEM (AP) – An Israeli government commission investigating a fatal accident at a Jewish pilgrimage site in April held its first day of hearings on Sunday, nearly four months after the Mount Meron stampede killed 45 people.
The April 29 incident on the Jewish holiday in northern Israel was the deadliest civil disaster in the country’s history. Around 100,000 worshipers, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, attended the festivities despite coronavirus regulations that limit outdoor gatherings to 500 people, and despite long-standing warnings about the site’s security.
Hundreds of people got stuck in a narrow passage leading 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 deficiencies at the Lag Baomer celebrations at Mount Meron.
A panel headed by former Supreme Court Justice Miriam Naor started the proceedings with testimony from Northern District Police Chief Shimon Lavi, the officer in charge of managing the event.
Lavi said the Mount Meron festivities are the Israel Police’s most important annual event, requiring extensive resources, planning and preparation. He said that for security concerns “there has been no limitation on assistance to Meron, this is how it has been done for the last 30 years.” Any attempt to limit entry and set up barricades could result in “much bigger bottlenecks and disasters,” he said.
The site in northern Israel is believed to be the burial site of the celebrated 2nd century sage, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. The tomb 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 not adequately equipped to handle the huge crowds that flock there during spring break, and that the existing infrastructure was a security risk.
However, the April meeting went ahead this year when powerful ultra-Orthodox politicians reportedly lobbied then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other government officials to lift attendance restrictions.
Lavi said there was “neglect for many years” and “lack of understanding that the event grew over time and that the infrastructure was not adequate, rather a kind of band-aid.”