As funerals for the 45 victims of the Lag B’Omer stampede in Meron continued, the Israeli government was finding itself in the hot seat.
As many as five reports dating back to 2008 described the annual celebration at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai as an accident waiting to happen.
A 2008 report by former State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss identified multiple potentially deadly flaws at the site and insisted that they be corrected, reported the Jerusalem Post.
Lindenstrauss expressed serious concerns about the size of the crowd that flocked to Meron, law enforcement’s inability to limit attendance and poor crowd safety protocols, all stemming from the fact that no single agency was responsible for coordinating the annual pilgrimage.
“Fire safety and escape routes are deficient and after emergency services have been issuing warnings for years, no actions have been taken by the religious institutions who manage the site in order to rectify the problems and ensure public safety,” said the report.
Lindenstrauss’s report triggered an investigation by the Ministry of Finance’s Government Companies Authority in early 2009, reported Ynet.
In a second report issued in 2011, Lindenstrauss noted that only minor improvements had been made and that there was still no one taking charge of the Lag B’Omer festivities, which prompted a request to have the government task the local regional council with the site’s maintenance.
Then-Finance Minister Yair Lapid placed the Meron compound under the jurisdiction of the Ministry for Religious Affairs in 2013. Four years later, its safety was called into question once more by the Knesset’s Internal Affairs and Environment Committee, with MK Dudi Amsalem asking how 300,000 people could be allowed to attend a massive event that had been coordinated without a single permit in place to ensure its safety.
When the issue arose yet again in 2018, MK Aryeh Deri, who was responsible for Israel’s religious sites, noted the dangers of having a large bonfire in a small, congested area, and suggested instead that the crowds be diverted to surrounding areas to watch the flames from afar.
Amid the charges of negligence being hurled at the Israeli government, Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Yossi Daitsh said that it was a miracle that there was only one deadly crush of people on the overcrowded mountain with untenable congestion occurring in several other spots.
Ynet reported that Daitsh was in Meron several hours before the stampede with his young son and brother in law and were nearly crushed as they stood at the entrance to the compound as thousands of people were pushing behind them.
“There were barriers and a small and narrow passageway,” said Daitsh. “A policeman told us to go back and threatened to spray us with pepper spray if we did not do as he said. I asked him if he was insane. I said there were people there, children, they would be crushed and people would die.”
Daitsh said he asked police to let some of the people through to alleviate the pressure, but his request fell on deaf ears.
“Then all hell broke loose,” said Daitsh. “People tried to get away and climbed on top of us.”
The overcrowding had Daitsh and his family leaving Meron, but not before he stopped to speak with on-site police.
“I told the policemen that those narrow bottlenecks would cause a disaster,” said Daitsh. “I told them to take the right precautions. There was a sense of chaos and a lack of order.”
Current State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman has promised to investigate the stampede, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Public Security Minister Amir Ohana both saying that a full independent examination of the tragedy would be conducted, according
“The Mount Meron disaster is one of the worst that has befallen the State of Israel,” said Netanyahu. “We will prepare for a thorough, serious and in-depth investigation to ensure that such a disaster is not repeated.”
Netanyahu called for Sunday to be observed as a national day of mourning and prayer with flags to be flown at half mast at public buildings, military bases and Israeli consulates and embassies worldwide.