Officials scrutinized as Israel mourns 45 dead at festival
JERUSALEM (AP) – Officials came under increasing scrutiny on Sunday for ignoring warnings about security breaches at one of Israel’s most visited holy sites, as the country mourned 45 ultra-Orthodox Jews killed in a stampede at a festival there.
The Mount Meron disaster also fueled debate over the role of the ultra-Orthodox minority in Israel and the refusal of some of its leaders to recognize the authority of the state. The festival had drawn some 100,000 people, most of them ultra-Orthodox Jews, after powerful ultra-Orthodox politicians allegedly 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 launch an independent commission with broad investigative powers. The agency is said to have the power to investigate senior politicians and decision-makers, going beyond a currently ongoing Justice Department investigation that examines possible misconduct by police officers at the site.
The increasingly acrimonious blame game comes during a political power struggle between Netanyahu and former allies turned enemies determined to overthrow him. After an inconclusive election in March, Netanyahu’s chances of forming a ruling coalition and staying in power appear to be diminishing. His ultra-Orthodox political allies would figure prominently in any government led by Netanyahu.
The stampede, the deadliest civil disaster in Israel’s history, took place Friday morning at a festival called Lag BaOmer on Mount Meron in northern Israel. The site is believed to be the burial place of the prominent second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. The annual spring celebrations are marked by the lighting of large bonfires, songs and dances.
This year’s festivities have unfolded despite nationwide coronavirus restrictions that prevent gatherings of more than 500 people outside and long-standing criticism from police and health officials in recent years regarding the safety of assemblies in mass on the site.
A common complaint heard in the wake of the stampede was that no single authority was responsible for managing festival security.
The site is ostensibly managed by the National Center for Holy Places of the Department of Religious Services.
But Eli Ben Dahan, a former deputy minister of religious services, said in an interview with Kan radio “there is no one who can be said to be leading the event, everything falls to them. shoulders.” Mount Meron is divided between an assortment of religious trusts, he explained, and has requested that it be placed under a single administrative authority.
“I don’t think that a place in the State of Israel should be extraterritorial, that the state has no control over it, does not manage it, is not responsible for it,” he said. said.
Over the weekend, several retired police commanders told Israeli TV stations that during their years of work, they had come under intense political pressure to accede to the wishes of religious politicians. They said they did not have the power to enforce safety rules, such as restricting attendance.
Yosef Schwinger, head of the National Center for Holy Places, said in an interview hours before the stampede that Home Secretary Aryeh Deri of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party “fought like a lion” in a meeting Cabinet to allow the festival to take place. unhindered. Schwinger said Deri deserves credit for “saving” the Lag BaOmer celebration from a more limited format.
Experts have long warned that the site was not sufficiently equipped to accommodate large numbers of visitors during the holidays and that the current state of infrastructure posed a security risk.
The warnings came true early Friday when thousands of people leaving an area of the site crossed a narrow passage descending the mountain. A slope and slippery stairs caused people to slip and fall, resulting in a human avalanche that killed 45 people and injured at least 150.
As of Sunday morning, health officials had identified all those killed. All but one of the dead were buried in hasty funerals, with a break on the Jewish Sabbath between sunset Friday and sunset Saturday. A person who attended Thursday night’s event was still missing.
Israel marked a national day of mourning on Sunday. Flags flew from half the staff in Israel and its diplomatic missions abroad, and sporting and cultural events were canceled.
The tragedy comes at a sensitive time for Netanyahu, who struggled to muster a governing coalition in the weeks following the March 23 parliamentary elections.
His deadline for forming a new government is Tuesday, but he could ask for a two-week extension from the Israeli president.
Israel has held four elections in two years, the most protracted political crisis in the country’s history. Netanyahu’s most loyal coalition partners are the two ultra-Orthodox parties, which have exerted disproportionate influence on Israeli politics as kingmakers in governing coalitions.
If he fails to form a government, a loose coalition of opponents and former allies may have the opportunity to form their own government.
Netanyahu is on trial for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three cases. He denied any wrongdoing and refused to step down on charges.
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