Planning and security officials raised serious concerns about the welfare of pilgrims during Lag B’Omer festivities at Mount Meron last year, days before a fatal crash during the event cost life to 45 people.
In a meeting on April 22, 2021, former Public Security Minister Amir Ohana urged police officials to allow more people to attend the event, even as others raised concerns about overcrowding at the site, according to a leaked recording to Channel 13 news and aired Wednesday.
Eight days later, officials watched the biggest civil disaster in Israel’s history unfold as crowds slipped and fell on a gateway to the holy site, triggering a cascading tragedy that claimed the lives of 45 people who were crushed and asphyxiated to death. The disaster prompted a commission of inquiry and sweeping changes to the format of the event this year, including strict crowd limits on a pilgrimage which in the past has drawn hundreds of thousands of people.
A recording of the meeting at National Police Headquarters, which was also attended by Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai, Northern District Commander Shimon Lavi and other senior officials, was not provided to the Board of Inquiry. of the State on the tragedy, for unknown reasons.
At the meeting, several police officials were heard warning of the dangers of overcrowding and the need to resist pressure from ultra-Orthodox figures pushing to raise or remove attendance caps.
Lavi is heard to say that although only 10,000 people were ostensibly allowed to attend, he expected around 50,000 to show up.
Ohana then expresses hope that the police will respond to the higher number of potential attendees by allowing more groups and doubling the allowed attendance to 20,000, “to reduce the gap between what is advertised and what actually happens.” .
He is also heard asking if the police can allow Knesset members to attend the event freely.
Ohana’s Likud party is in a political alliance with the ultra-Orthodox Shas and UTJ. According to reports, requests from religious figures of various sects to increase the number of pilgrims allowed at the event were forwarded to then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then-Minister of Interior, Aryeh Deri, to Ohana and others. This is believed to have led to pressure on the police to allow as many people as possible to attend freely.
In the recording, a fire and rescue representative warns of a potential mass casualty event during the meeting. “It can be very significant,” he says, noting an incident when a balcony collapsed at the site in 1911, killing 13 people.
Police Chief Shabtai says that in previous years, women and children have repeatedly faced dangers. “There are people here who have lost a lot of calories because of the fears and the challenges of having children and women breathe,” he notes wryly.
In the recording, a representative of the religious groups overseeing the site is heard, assuring those present that security concerns have been taken into account for safety concerns and have made all necessary repairs to the site “within the rules of art”.
He adds that the police should not decide who can attend, as such decisions create “resentment and unrest in the [Hasidic] community.”
Shabtai testified before the commission into the Lag B’Omer tragedy in April this year and argued he was not responsible for the crash, blaming it on faulty engineering of the slippery walkway.
He also dismissed accusations by former police operations division chief Amnon Alkalai that he ignored warnings about the dangers of overcrowding at the site.
In May, the Knesset Finance Committee approved a compensation deal in which each family received NIS 500,000 ($160,000) for each family member who died in the tragedy, for a total of 22.5 million of NIS.
This year’s event took place under heavy restrictions compared to the past, in order to avoid a further stampede.
Most striking of these changes was the restriction of the number of people allowed to climb Mount Meron to no more than 16,000 at any one time. Unlike previous years’ coast-to-coast celebrations, where anyone could simply walk to Mount Meron, this year reservations were required in advance and people could only arrive on buses organized by the Ministry of Transport. .
Haredi leaders have criticized this year’s limitations as too restrictive, and some ultra-Orthodox worshipers broke through police barricades to enter the grave site, nearly trampling those inside.