MOUNT MERON, Israel – Demands responsibility following a disaster that killed 45 people at a shrine in northern Israel set up on Saturday as questions arose about the guilt of the government, religious leaders and police.
The massacre of Mount Meron in early Friday during an annual pilgrimage, one of the worst civil disasters in Israel, has been heralded for years in warnings from local politicians, journalists and ombudsmen that the site has become a death trap.
Israeli media reported on Saturday that senior police officers blamed the Ministry of Religious Services for signing the event̵
But as more pilgrims are expected to arrive at Mount Meron after sunset on Saturday for a second ceremonial day, a police spokesman said no additional precautions had been taken to secure the site after the pressure, but that further assessments would be made in the evening. Three police officers at the scene said they had not received instructions to limit the crowds after Friday’s death.
Politicians and political commentators have accused police and other authorities of being involved in the tragedy. One of those under surveillance is Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, who heads the police and rescue services and attends the pilgrimage himself.
Successive Israeli governments have been accused of turning a blind eye to mountain security issues for more than a decade to avoid the alienation of ultra-Orthodox Jews who attend the annual holiday known in Hebrew as hilula. Seven of Israel’s last nine ruling coalitions have relied on the support of ultra-Orthodox parties.
Referring to the Minister of Public Security, Anschel Pfeffer, a political commentator and author, wrote in the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz, “Ohana would not think – not for a minute – of restricting arrival at the hulano at Meron and angering the ultra-Orthodox politicians who control the fate of his master, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “
“But neither did his predecessors consider it,” he added.
Mr Netanyahu is currently struggling to form a new coalition government, which will need the support of two ultra-Orthodox parties to have a chance to form a parliamentary majority.
Senior Officer Maurice Chen said Friday night that police protocols were not influenced by political interference.
Mr Ohana, the Minister of Public Security, posted on Twitter that the police had done everything possible.
“There must be and will be an in-depth, in-depth and real investigation that will find out how and why this happened,” he said later in a video, adding: “From the bottom of my heart, I want to share in the grief of the families valuable of all, and wish a speedy and complete recovery of the wounded. “
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has commissioned an independent security guard to investigate allegations of police misconduct, assessing allegations of police negligence in accumulating the disaster.
But on Saturday, Cannes, the state-run television operator, said the guard was reluctant to oversee the investigation because of roles played by other officers and authorities outside the police.
Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews visit Mount Meron every spring for the Lag b’Omer festival. It honors the death of a second-century Jewish mystic, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, whose tomb is in the mountains.
Crowds were banned in 2020, but about 100,000 returned this year after a successful vaccination campaign that allowed much of Israeli life to return to something close to normal.
The event has long provoked calls to limit the number of worshipers allowed to attend. The place is located by narrow, sloping corridors and small, narrow playgrounds, which visitors often warn are not suitable for crowds.
The disaster began in the early hours of Friday morning when crowds gathered in a small arena near the tomb to watch the lighting of several ceremonial fires. Then thousands of people tried to leave on a steep narrow slope, which eventually connects through a short shore from steps to a narrow tunnel.
As they approached the steps to the tunnel, some in front slid across the metal floor of the slope, witnesses said. This created a sudden blockage, keeping hundreds at the bottom. As more and more worshipers continued to leave the ceremony above, they began to trample those below.
In 2008 and 2011, the state controller, a state observer, warned that the site’s roads were too narrow to accommodate so many people. The local council leader said he had tried to close it at least three times.
In 2013, the police chief in northern Israel warned colleagues of the possibility of a fatal crash. And in 2018, the editor of a major magazine, Haredi, said it was a recipe for disaster.
On Friday night, a current representative of the state controller said that the lack of a consistent structure of the site’s management made it difficult to implement an appropriate safety system there.
Various parts of the site fall under the jurisdiction of four competing private religious institutions, all of which oppose state intervention.
Liora Shimon, deputy director general of the controller, said, “Kahn said.” The fact is that this site is not under the responsibility of a single management. “
Yossi Amsalem, 38, a survivor of the tragedy, said the site’s chaotic management had contributed to the upheaval, but had stopped blaming any particular group. Mr Amsalem said the corridor where the crushing occurred had been used for two-way traffic, making traffic even more difficult.
“The path must be either for ascent or descent,” said Mr Amsalem from a hospital bed in Safed, a town on the other side of the Meron Valley. “There should be no such confusion.”
The tragedy has attracted sympathy and solidarity from all religious and secular divisions in Israel. Health workers say 2,200 Israelis have donated blood to help victims on Mount Meron. On Sunday, half-staff flags will be flown in official government buildings as the country celebrates a day of national mourning.
But the catastrophe has again sparked a debate about religious and secular tensions in Israel and the amount of autonomy to be granted to parts of the ultra-Orthodox community that oppose state control.
While many ultra-Orthodox Jews play an active role in Israeli life, some reject the concept of Zionism, while others reject participation in the Israeli military or labor force and oppose state intervention in their education system.
Tensions rose during the pandemic, when parts of the community infuriated the secular public by ignoring state regulations on the coronavirus, even though the disease devastated their ranks far above the rest of the population.
Therefore, for the survivors of the Meron disaster, the crushing became the last in a series of struggles and failures, instead of a joyful return to normalcy and tradition after the pandemic.
“It was such a difficult year,” said Moshe Helfgot, a 22-year-old child whose right leg was broken in two. “And now there is another disaster.”
Irit Pazner Garshovitz and Jonathan Rosen contributed to the report.