An Israeli government commission investigating a deadly stampede at a Jewish pilgrimage site in April held its first day of hearings on Sunday, almost four months after 45 people were killed.
The incident at the Jewish festival at Mount Meron in northern Israel on April 29 was the deadliest civilian disaster in the country’s history.
Around 100,000 worshippers, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, attended the celebrations despite coronavirus regulations limiting outdoor assemblies to 500 people, and in spite of longstanding warnings about the safety of the site.
Hundreds of people were caught in a bottleneck in a narrow passageway as they descended the mountain, and the slippery slope caused some to stumble and fall. The resulting human avalanche killed 45 people and injured at least 150 others.
In June, the Israeli government approved the formation of an independent state commission of inquiry to investigate safety shortcomings at the Lag Baomer celebrations at Mount Meron.
A panel headed by former Supreme Court justice Miriam Naor began proceedings by hearing evidence from Northern District police chief Shimon Lavi, the officer who was in charge of managing the event.
Mr Lavi said the Mount Meron festivities are the Israeli police’s most significant annual event, requiring extensive resources, planning and preparation.
He said that, out of safety concerns, “there has been no limitation on attendance at Meron – that’s how it has been done for the last 30 years”. Any attempt to limit entry and put up barricades could result in “bottlenecks and much greater disasters”, he said.
The site in northern Israel is believed to be the burial place of celebrated second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.
The tomb complex and adjoining structures are managed by the Religious Services Ministry’s department for holy places.
Experts had long warned that the Mount Meron complex was inadequately equipped to handle the enormous crowds that flock there during the springtime holiday, and that the existing infrastructure was a safety risk.
But April’s gathering went ahead nevertheless as powerful ultra-Orthodox politicians reportedly pressured then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other government officials to lift attendance restrictions.
Mr Lavi said there had been “neglect for many years” and “a lack of understanding that the event grew over time and that the infrastructure was not adequate, rather a kind of band-aid”.