The comptroller of the State of Israel announced on Monday the launch of an investigation into a stampede that killed 45 pilgrims during a religious holiday, saying that the crash “could have been avoided”.
At least 16 children and adolescents were among those crushed to death in the wee hours of Friday morning, a tragedy described as Israel’s worst peacetime disaster.
Tens of thousands of people had packed a site on Mount Meron in northern Israel for the annual pilgrimage to the tomb of renowned second-century rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, coinciding with the Lag BaOmer holiday.
The tragedy “could have been avoided, and we now need to determine how,” Matanyahu Englman told reporters in announcing a “special audit” in the stampede.
Englman’s office, a major government watchdog, had issued reports in 2008 and 2011 warning of dangers to pilgrims at the Mount Meron site.
“Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s grave is not properly prepared to accommodate tens and hundreds of thousands of people arriving for mass events,” the 2008 report said.
The latest document stated that site maintenance was limited and that many illegally constructed additions “risked endangering” people inside.
The stampede in the male section of the gender-divided site is believed to have started when people moved through a narrow passage that became a deadly choke point.
Some have accused police of blocking access to a ramp that could have allowed pilgrims to escape.
Authorities had allowed 10,000 pilgrims to attend this year, but several Israeli media reported 100,000 people turned up at Mount Meron. AFP could not confirm this figure.
Those killed were men and boys from the country’s large ultra-Orthodox community. Rescue agency Magen David Adom said 120 people were also injured.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised a full investigation, but several people, including Defense Minister Benny Gantz, have called for a state commission of inquiry, Israel’s highest level of investigation.
Northern Israel Police Chief Shimon Lavi said he was ready to accept “responsibility,” while Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, a close ally of Netanyahu, said he was ready to face an investigation.
“I’m responsible, but responsibility doesn’t mean guilt,” Ohana said.
On Monday, one of the latest victims, a 21-year-old Talmudic student from Argentina, was laid to rest in a Jerusalem cemetery filled with hundreds of mourners, Israeli media reported.
The funeral, and identification of the dead, had begun hours after the tragedy on Friday, but stopped for the Sabbath, resuming when the Jewish day of rest ended at sunset on Saturday.
© 2021 AFP