San Francisco Chronicle
Safety warnings ignored before festival disaster
JERUSALEM — Officials came under widening scrutiny Sunday for ignoring warnings about safety lapses at one of Israel’s most visited holy sites, as the country mourned 45 ultraOrthodox Jews killed in a stampede at a festival there.
The disaster at Mount Meron also heated up the debate over the role of the ultraOrthodox minority in Israel and the refusal of some of its leaders to acknowledge the authority of the state. The festival had drawn some 100,000 people after powerful ultraOrthodox politicians reportedly pressured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others to lift attendance restrictions.
On Sunday, a group of retired police commissioners called on the prime minister to appoint an independent commission with wideranging powers to investigate. The body would have the authority to probe senior politicians and decisionmakers, going beyond a Justice Ministry inquiry now under way that is looking into possible misconduct by police.
The increasingly acrimonious blame game comes during a political power struggle between Netanyahu and former alliesturnedfoes bent on toppling him. After inconclusive elections in March, Netanyahu’s chances of forming a ruling coalition and staying in power seem to be waning. His ultraOrthodox political allies would feature prominently in any Netanyahuled government.
The stampede, the deadliest civil disaster in Israel’s history, took place early Friday during a festival called Lag BaOmer on Mount Meron in northern Israel. The site is believed to be the burial place of prominent second century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. The annual springtime celebrations are marked by the lighting of large bonfires, singing and dancing.
This year’s festivities went ahead despite national coronavirus restrictions that prevent assemblies of more than 500 people outdoors, and longstanding criticism by police and health authorities in recent years about the safety of mass assemblies at the site.
A common complaint heard in the aftermath of the stampede was that no single authority was in charge of managing the festival safety.
Several retired police commanders told Israeli media that during their years on the job they came under intense political pressure to accede to the wishes of religious politicians. They said they had no authority to enforce safety regulations, such as limiting attendance.
Experts have long warned the site was inadequately equipped to handle a large number of visitors on the holiday, and that the existing state of infrastructure was a safety risk.
By Sunday morning, health officials had identified all those killed. Israel marked a national day of mourning Sunday.