Will Israel Open State Inquiry Into Meron Tragedy?

YERUSHALAYIM -
Men seen Sunday at the site where 45 victims were killed in a stampede on Thursday night in Meron. (David Cohen/Flash90)

All eyes are on Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and whether he will order a state commission of inquiry into the Lag BaOmer tragedy in Meron that left 45 people dead and over 150 injured.

By law, an inquiry of this kind would require newly installed Justice Minister Benny Gantz’s approval. The Blue and White leader on Sunday called for a state commission of inquiry to be formed, though it remains unclear whether a provisional government can install such a panel.

In a letter to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, Gantz wrote, “Only a state commission of inquiry will include all aspects of the investigation into the disaster, as it has the broadest authority and the tools at its disposal to consolidate the necessary recommendations.

A large crowd attends the levayah of habachur Yosef Kahn, z”l, one of the victims of the Meron tragedy, outside the Mir Yeshivah in Yerushalayim, Sunday night. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

“Given the unusual circumstances of the event, and in particular, in light of the possibility that government members will be subpoenaed by the commission, only a state commission of inquiry appointed by the president of the High Court, with a judge at its helm, will ensure the independence of the investigation and the public’s trust.”

According to Gantz, “The establishment of a commission will not bring the families their loved ones back or ease their pain, but it can prevent this kind of disaster [from happening again] in the future. There is an urgency to the speedy establishment of a commission so that it can carry out an initial assessment when the information is available and without many other investigative activities of other officials.”

While the Israel Police’s Major Crimes Unit was set to launch an investigation shortly after the tragedy took place, not much action has been taken on that front following the decision to task the Police Internal Investigations Department with examining whether officers were liable for the disaster.

The department is set to collect testimony from officers in the Northern Police District, National Headquarters, and Operations Division before a decision is made into whether a criminal investigation is warranted. The move could see Northern District Commander Maj. Gen. Shimon Lavi, Police Commissioner Yaakov Shabtai and other senior officers questioned under warning.

The Internal Investigations Department’s review will be headed by Sgt. Salman Ibrahim.

Over the weekend and continuing into Sunday, investigators from the Northern District and National Police Headquarters collected evidence, including documentation and security camera footage from the scene. The mapping of materials will begin in the coming days, and should this raise suspicions of any kind, a criminal investigation will be opened into those involved.

Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, meanwhile, has told close associates he has no plans to step down over the tragedy.

“Responsibility is not akin to guilt,” he said.

On Friday, hours after the scope of the tragedy became clear, Lavi told reporters that “as district chief, I bear full responsibility, for better or for worse. We are currently gathering information and evidence to get to the truth about what happened. I’m willing to face any investigation.”