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A-G gives Gantz green light for state inquiry into Meron tragedy

CM 03/05/2021

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Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit on Monday gave Alternate Prime Minister and Justice Minister Benny Gantz a green light for a state commission of inquiry into Friday’s Lag Ba’omer disaster on Mount Meron in which 45 were killed and more than 150 injured.Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would also need to approve the move, as Mandelblit’s permission only removes obstacles for an inquiry on the legal front.Following Mandelblit’s signing, Gantz announced he had directed Justice Ministry officials to formalize a state inquiry proposal for the cabinet to consider.Gantz made it clear in a letter to Mandelblit on Sunday that he believed only a state inquiry could fully get to the bottom of the tragedy and ensure there would be no repetition. Mandelblit’s support was needed since the current government is a transitional one, he said.Transitional governments traditionally have fewer powers than regular governments, which have formed a stable coalition meant to last for years. But Mandelblit has noted exceptions to this rule over the last two years if there is a nonpolitical state necessity.The attorney-general on Monday even seemed to suggest that he thought a state inquiry would be the best tool for analyzing the Meron tragedy.Only an empowered body that has jurisdiction over all issues and authorities involved would be able to improve safety at Meron for the future, Mandelblit said.

Gantz made this position explicit in his letter, writing: “Only a state commission of inquiry will be able to evaluate all of the different perspectives to understand the disaster, since it would have the widest possible authority and tools to formulate the necessary recommendations.”Only such a state inquiry can summon all the various ministers who had a hand in the event, he said, adding that the commission should be led by a judge appointed by the Supreme Court president to ensure its independence.Various NGOs and former senior police officials have already called for such a commission.Meanwhile, State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman held a press conference on Monday in which he announced he would undertake a special probe of the disaster.Commentators speculated whether a report by Englman, viewed generally as less aggressive than his recent predecessors in probing and laying blame, might be the most comfortable outcome for Netanyahu.The prime minister only committed to a “deep review” of the disaster, but not to its method or powers.“It was a disaster that could have been prevented,” Englman said. “Now it is incumbent upon us to evaluate and probe how to prevent another incident like this.”“To the extent that there is personal responsibility” by an individual or individuals for the disaster, “this will be stated unambiguously with specific treatment of those connected to the issue,” he said.Englman said if a state commission of inquiry is established, he would reevaluate the purpose of his probe, leaving the door open on that issue.It is unclear whether Netanyahu will allow such a commission to proceed or whether he would give it any meaningful authority. This is because he and some of his coalition partners, including Interior Minister Arye Deri, Housing Minister Ya’acov Litzman and Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, could come under scrutiny and be subject to criticism for their roles in the incident.There were legal problems at the site, Deri said Monday, adding that the state must take responsibility for administering it to avoid future problems. He did not say how this should be done.Englman said his new report would focus on three main issues.Speaking at the press conference, he said he would probe the conduct and actions of the political decision-makers, police and disaster and rescue workers.Secondly, Englman said there would be an overview of how the cemetery and area around the Meron grave site of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai has been treated and managed. Bar Yochai was a famed rabbi from the Mishnaic era credited with authoring the mystic books of the Zohar.Within this section, he said he would reference to what extent the government and various authorities followed up on deficiencies noted in past 2008 and 2011 State Comptroller’s Reports.Finally, the third section would be about the future and how to best handle events going forward, including the land and holy sites in the area themselves, Englman said.Regarding this third section, he said he would examine Lag Ba’omer at Mount Meron and similar mass pilgrimage events at other holy places.Furthermore, if there were any signs of criminality, they would be referred to the attorney-general, he said.The Police Investigations Department (PID) is already probing the incident, both in terms of civilian and police conduct.United Torah Judaism leader Moshe Gafni on Sunday night told Channel 12 he has been demanding for years that the government invest millions of shekels more into the site to make it safer.Asked whether an alternative to investing more funds would be to limit the number of attendees, Gafni said secular Jews gather in large numbers in stadiums and at rallies in parks and that haredim (ultra-Orthodox) should be allowed to hold large events also, but there should be more funds invested in safety.Gafni and former Bayit Yehudi MK Zevulun Orlev were among key MKs in the past who did flag the safety issue at Mount Meron and who pushed for some of the previous State Comptroller’s Reports on the issue.Both in 2008 and 2011, the State Comptroller’s Office warned of dangerous safety deficiencies at Mount Meron in general and on Lag Ba’omer in particular.More recently, Deri could come under fire since he put heavy pressure on Netanyahu and the police to allow this year’s Lag Ba’omer event to have an unlimited number of attendees.However, he has said this year’s Lag Ba’omer gathering had fewer attendees than in prior years due to the coronavirus.One twist in the controversy is that the Supreme Court has been involved in trying to arbitrate between groups, including the Finance Ministry when it was led by Yair Lapid in 2013 on one side, versus rabbinic officials in charge of the country’s holy sites on the other.Ohana may try to shift blame from himself and the police to the Supreme Court, Channel 12 reported Sunday night.
Source: Jerusalem Post

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