Concern About Overcrowding at Meron Before the Tragedy

United Torah MK Rabbi Moshe Gafni. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Statements from Israeli officials following the tragedy at Meron indicate that widespread concern existed about public safety in the overcrowded conditions on Lag BaOmer before Thursday night’s events.

“We are constantly in apprehension that all the systems function correctly,” Rabbi Yosef Schwinger, head of the National Center for Development of Holy Places, was quoted as saying by The Times of Israel just hours before the disaster.

Rabbi Schwinger noted that earlier he too had been pushed by crowds, and at one point “children were almost crushed. It was an unpleasant sight.”

But he added: “People think if there was crowding, the [Center] didn’t manage things properly.” However, he said, “the manager [of the event] is the Israel Police. We budget everything, plan everything but here on the ground, safety-wise it’s the Israel Police.”

The head of the United Torah Judaism party, Rabbi Moshe Gafni, told Kan Bet Radio that “You can’t have so many people come to such a small space and not have a disaster.”

He says he personally knows several people whose family members were killed on Thursday night.

“The tragedies are immense and totally incomprehensible,” he said. “What occurred is simply appalling, absolutely terrible. In shul today, the person next to me – his grandson was killed. Another person there lost his brother.

“It’s horrible. The State of Israel has never known such a thing. Each of them was an entire world.”

“I never traveled to Meron for Lag BaOmer,” he said. “And in years past, I would mention, during discussions in the Knesset’s Finance Committee, and also in the Knesset plenum itself, that Meron is like [some primitive village in the Far East]. Things haven’t changed there since the state was established. And I said there’s no way so many people can converge on such a small site without a tragedy occurring.”

Rabbi Gafni said that whatever manner of inquiry is decided on, “first of all, the government has to make its own decisions – the government has to first declare what it intends to do at the site. And the real question is: Why didn’t they do anything until now?”

The State Comptroller reports of 2008 and 2011 warned against what could happen at Meron.

Former comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss had said that the site was not equipped to handle the huge crowds; that law enforcement lacked the capability to limit the numbers to reasonable levels; and that poor safety measures were inadequate.

Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi David Lau told Army Radio on Sunday that things must change at Meron.

“The site needs to be handled differently. What is happening at the moment does not respect the place or human life. The state is obligated to take responsibility for it,” he said.

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