The State Commission of Inquiry investigating the 2021 Mount Meron tragedy has issued warning letters to Israeli opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu and other former and current government officials.
Netanyahu served as Israel’s prime minister at the time of the disaster, which saw 45 people crushed to death and 150 injured at the tomb of 2nd-century sage Shimon bar Yochai during the Lag B’Omer celebration. About 100,000 Orthodox Jews had gathered at the site to observe the anniversary.
The letters the inquiry committee sent out allege the possibility of negligence or legal wrongdoing at the hands of then-leaders in Israel. As prime minister, Netanyahu “knew or should have known” that the Meron pilgrimage site was heavily neglected, a letter states.
“Netanyahu did not act as expected of a prime minister to fix anything, even though the issue had been raised in serious reports by the State Comptroller,” the letter stated.
Other letters were sent to Israel’s former minister of public security Amir Ohana, Israel Police Chief Kobi Shabtai and former Israel Police Northern District Chief Shimon Lavi.
Shabtai said he would remain in his position during the probe, stating, “We at the Police, and myself as its head, called for an unfettered commission of inquiry from the start, and we’ve emphasized that we will cooperate with it to ensure that an event like this never repeats in the State of Israel.”
The state panel stressed on Tuesday that “those holding senior positions, who had wide and significant authority, need to bear responsibility in accordance [with those roles].”
According to the document cited by The Times of Israel, the warnings were issued so that “officials that are liable to be negatively impacted by the inquiry’s work or findings … will have a chance to hear the claims against them and offer a reply, so that the panel’s investigation can reach the truth.”
The Mount Meron tragedy ranks as the deadliest civil disaster in Israel’s history. The fatal crush began when worshippers began to pour out of one section of the mountainside compound, passing through a narrow corridor with a wet floor that led to a staircase. Some in the crowd tripped and slipped near the top of the stairs, as those behind them continued forward, crushing and trampling the victims – or falling into danger, themselves.
A year-long inquiry has focused on the logistical failures of the site and the Lag B’Omer event, which were under the purview of the engineers, religious-affairs officials and police officials who were part of the event.
The State Commission of Inquiry has summoned top officials for questioning, including Netanyahu, Ohana, Israel’s then-Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, former National Security Council Chief Meir Ben-Shabbat and others.
In his testimony to the inquiry commission, Netanyahu has said that he “did not know there was a critical safety issue” at Meron, according to The Jerusalem Post.
“I heard about overcrowding, but do not think we knew there was a safety issue,” he said.
Netanyahu’s Likud party has lamented the timing of the inquiry, with its close proximity to the Nov. 1 elections, saying, “We participate in the [victims’] families’ great pain. Since the country was established, no State Commission of Inquiry sent warning letters to political candidates during the election period. It is saddening that the committee of investigation, which was established on the Bennett-Lapid government’s initiative, chose to do so.”
Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who called for the formation of the state commission while serving in Netanyahu's government at the time of the tragedy, tweeted, “We are not looking to cast blame, we are looking for responsibility and to learn lessons. That’s the reason I stood for the establishment of the state inquiry into the Meron disaster.”
Upon completion of its work, the state commission submits its official recommendations, which the government can choose to adopt or not. No government, however, has chosen to completely ignore recommendations from an official state inquiry.
Tal Heinrich is a senior correspondent for both ALL ISRAEL NEWS and ALL ARAB NEWS. She is currently based in New York City. Tal also provides reports and analysis for Israeli Hebrew media Channel 14 News.