Police chief brushed off fears of Mount Meron capacity limit - ops head

Senior officer testifies he failed to convince Shabtai to limit the number of participants

The bodies of the victims of the tragedy at Mount Meron on Lag Ba'omer. (photo credit: SHAY YERUSHALMI/BEHADREI HAREDIM/REUTERS)
The bodies of the victims of the tragedy at Mount Meron on Lag Ba'omer.
(photo credit: SHAY YERUSHALMI/BEHADREI HAREDIM/REUTERS)

Israel Police Insp.-Gen. Kobi Shabtai dismissed concerns about overcrowding ahead of last year’s Mount Meron disaster, a senior police commander told the state commission of inquiry Sunday.

On April 30, 45 mostly haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men and boys died in a mass crush on Mount Meron. It was Israel’s deadliest ever civilian disaster. Tens of thousands of pilgrims had gathered for the annual Lag Ba’omer celebrations near the tomb of Talmudic sage Shimon bar Yochai.
Police Operations Division Cmdr. Shimon Nachmani said he had tried to warn the police chief that the site was a disaster waiting to happen.

“I was very disturbed by the decision not to limit the volume of the public” attending since “the site cannot hold that many,” he testified. “The extent to which things are squished there is out of control. I said to the police chief that we are obligated to do a field tour of the site. He responded: ‘Don’t worry, any state inquiry is on me.’”

Virtually everyone who has testified to the commission has said the writing was on the wall in terms of the dangerous mix of too many attendees and too few safety measures, together with poor structural engineering at the site.

 Israel Police commissioner Kobi Shabtai addresses top police brass on September 30, 2021. (credit: ISRAEL POLICE SPOKESMAN) Israel Police commissioner Kobi Shabtai addresses top police brass on September 30, 2021. (credit: ISRAEL POLICE SPOKESMAN)
However, most officials, including Shabtai, have blamed the decision to allow unlimited attendance and the subsequent disaster on a variety of factors, including political pressure from haredi politicians and uncontrollable extremist hassidic sects.
Shabtai himself has mostly said he was following the orders of then-public security minister Amir Ohana and was powerless to change the dynamics.
Nachmani’s testimony digs a gaping hole into Shabtai’s narrative and portrays him as apathetic to the danger or even actively thwarting any efforts to sound the alarm. Nachmani also said it was later leaked to the media that he was leaking internal police protocols to the commission before it had even requested the materials, or alternatively, that he was withholding information from the commission.
According to Nachmani, and the commission itself, this was untrue, and he only provided materials to the commission upon official request.
However, he said, Shabtai believed media stories that he was working with the commission against Shabtai, and he penalized him when it came time for his next assignment within the police. The official penalty and the general message from Shabtai that he was out of favor led him to quit the police suddenly and unexpectedly last October.
Nachmani said Shabtai had inferred that he was lying when he denied leaking to the commission, and Shabtai pushed for both of them to take polygraphs over the issues in dispute.
Some reports have said Nachmani was also forced out because of bad interpersonal relations with Police Operations Cmdr. Sigal Bar Zvi.
Nachmani also denied ever speaking to the media, though there were leaks to the media from an unclear source months ago about his criticism of Shabtai.
The commission is headed by former Supreme Court chief justice Miriam Naor. The two other members are Rabbi Mordechai Karlitz and IDF Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Shlomo Yanai.
In December, Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana appointed Brig.-Gen. Tzviki Tessler to be in charge of Mount Meron planning and preparation for major events, including Lag Ba’omer, for the coming year.
In November, the inquiry released an interim report to assist with planning for this year’s events.
The committee was formed in late June after the government of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett took office and overturned the previous government’s decision to avoid a formal inquiry.