Calls Growing Louder in Israel for Official Commission of Inquiry on Meron Disaster as More Victims are Buried

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Orthodox Jewish mourners gather around the body of Menachem Knoblowitz, 21, from Borough Park, Brookln who died during Lag BaOmer celebrations at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, at his funeral in Jerusalem. A stampede at a religious festival attended by100,000 Orthodox Jews in northern Israel killed dozens of people and injured about 150 early Friday, medical officials said. It was one of the country's deadliest civilian disasters. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

By: Fern Sidman

In the aftermath of the horrific tragedy that claimed the lives of 45 people at the Lag B’Omer celebration on Mount Meron in Israel, the AP reported that calls were growing louder for establishing an official commission of inquiry, in part to gauge the responsibility of politicians and senior decision-makers for allowing the mass gathering to take place, despite repeated warnings over the years about safety lapses. In an initial response, Israel’s Cabinet minister who oversees the nation’s police force defended the police’s handling of the event.

The stampede early Friday that also left 150 injured and some in critical condition had cut short the annual Lag B’Omer festival. The festival had drawn some 100,000 people in the largest gathering so far this year as Israel’s successful vaccination campaign allowed the country to emerge from coronavirus restrictions, as was reported by AP.

As large numbers of people began to leave one of the events at the festival, they thronged a narrow tunnel-like passage that sloped downward and ended with a series of steps, as was reported by AP. The floor had become slippery with spilled water and juice, according to witnesses. As some in the crowd slipped, those behind them fell on top of those on the ground.

Published reports indicate that those who died lost their lives due to either suffocation or being crushed to death in the stampede.

AP reported that veteran paramedic Yossi Halabi told Israel TV’s Channel 12 on Saturday that he “encountered a wall of bodies” after he was first alerted to the disaster from his nearby post. He said it took him and fellow rescuers about 40 minutes to extract the dead and wounded from the chaos. He said that it was “one of the worst if not the worst incident” he had seen in 30 years on the job.

The Algemeiner reported that one man who was injured during the panic that ensured named Haim told Israel’s Channel 13 that he and others were crushed beneath the crowd, and “we got to a situation where people couldn’t breathe. Hundreds of people were there, I heard shouts of ‘I can’t breathe,’ it was insane.”

Another man who was moderately injured, named Gil described the events to The Algemeiner as well, saying, “We went into a passageway with stairs, around four by nineteen meters in size, a place meant to hold something like 50 people at most, and I think there were something like more than 500 people there.” “The front row just fell,” he continued, “and those above didn’t see that it fell and continued to push and there were a lot of people. One row after another row after another row … There were many tragedies.” However, he said, “there was also a fantastic rescue team there.”

CBS News reported that one of the injured, Avraham Leibe, told Israeli public broadcaster Kan that a crush of people trying to descend the mountain caused a “general bedlam” on a slippery metal slope followed by stairs. “Nobody managed to halt,” he said from a hospital bed. “I saw one after the other fall.”

Velvel Brevda, a rabbi who witnessed the stampede, accused police of putting up barriers that had prevented people from leaving through exits that were usually open in past years, according to the CBS News report.

“Where should we leave from?” he said. “And the officers who were there couldn’t care less.”

He said the government was responsible for the deaths of “beautiful holy Jews that were killed here for no reason whatsoever, just to prove a point that they’re in charge of this place instead of the Orthodox Jews being in charge.”

Israel National News reported that ZAKA spokesperson Moti Bokchin spoke in an interview with Galei Zahal about the Meron disaster. “When I arrived at the scene, I understood that this was an unusual event – out of fear, people were running in every direction,” Bokchin said.

He added: “The cell phones of those who were killed do not stop ringing, and we see, ‘Mommy’ and ‘My dear wife’ – it’s unfathomable.”

Magen David Adom (MDA) staff have treated 150 people who were injured in the stampede, and transferring six people to hospitals in critical condition, 18 in serious condition, and dozens in light and moderate condition, according to the INN report.

Forty-seven of them were sent to Ziv Medical Center in Tzfat, while 26 were sent to Poriya in Tiberias, 27 to the Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya, five to Rambam Health Care Campus in Haifa, and one to Ha’emek Medical Center in Afula. One patient who was sent to Ziv was transferred by helicopter to Hadassah Ein Kerem in Jerusalem.

Haredi journalist Aryeh Ehrlich warned three years ago about the Meron disaster – and is now beating his chest over not doing more to prevent it, as was reported by INN.

Ehrlich, who writes for Mishpacha magazine tweeted in 2018: “First call to order: The narrow exit path leading from the bonfire area of the Toldot Aharon hasidic group creates a human bottleneck and horrendous shoving, on the level of an actual danger of being crushed.” Israel National News reported that in that tweet, he emphasized that, “This is the only exit.”

“If we want to prevent a repeat of what happened at Rabbi Wosner’s funeral – we cannot hold the bonfire lighting at this place before we create a wide exit with signage.”

INN reported that this tweet was widely shared on Friday, after it became clear that the bottleneck at the site had caused the stampede. However, Ehrlich himself on Friday tweeted that he is beating his chest in regret:

“Everyone is quoting this tweet from 2018, in which I warned about the danger in the hallway of death,” he explained. “Only I am eating myself up and torturing myself for making do with a single tweet (and a few lines in a newspaper), and not taking the issue up obsessively and incessantly. I didn’t drive everyone mad, and I didn’t shake up all the authorities, and I didn’t do a series of articles and tweets on it, until someone did something.”

According to the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute, the process of identifying and releasing the bodies is nearing completion, as was reported by INN. So far, 42 bodies have been identified. Thirty-four have been released for burial, and just three have not yet been positively identified.

“The process is conducted in cooperation with the families,” the Institute said. “We believe that the entire process will be completed in the coming hours.”

The Consulate General of Israel in New York on Friday confirmed that four of the dead were U.S. citizens. It said in a statement that it was “working with the families of all those who died and were injured to enter Israel as easily and quickly as possible.”

Among the victims from New York were Menachem Knoblowitz, 22, of Boro Park. He was engaged to a girl from Lakewood, New Jersey.  Eliezer Tzvi Joseph, 26, of Kiryas Yoel, New York, was the father of four children. Yosef Amram Tauber, z’l, 19, of Monsey, who was studying at Brisk, had just arrived in Israel for the first time last week. His father, Rav Tzvi Tauber, is a Rav of a shul in Chester, New York. Shraga Gestetner, z’l, 35, a well-known singer from Montreal, Canada, was visiting Israel with his two brothers but was living in Monsey.  He was buried on Friday afternoon on Har Hamenuchos.

INN  reported that the Sha’alvim Yeshiva is mourning the death of 19-year old Teaneck, New Jersey student Daniel (Donny) Morris, who was studying at the yeshiva.

Following the stampede, the yeshiva’s staff searched for Morris in the various hospitals, until they received the heartbreaking news that he was among the dead, according to the INN report.

“Daniel was an amazing student, he was studious and beloved by his friends, he had a sense of humor and was bursting with love of life,” the yeshiva said. “Daniel had an excellent character and acted with pleasantness; he loved very much to learn Torah. He came to Israel from New Jersey, in order to learn Torah in the Land of Israel.”

“Sha’alvim embraces the bereaved Morris family and is in touch with his parents, family, and community rabbi, who all received the bitter news. The school’s staff is embracing Daniel’s friends and the shocked students, and is in touch with professionals to provide the necessary support.”

Yeshiva World News after the conclusion of Shabbos reported on that 16 people injured in the Meron disaster are still hospitalized, with a number of them in serious or critical condition.

The YWN report indicated the condition of a seriously injured 11-year-old boy from Bnei Brak improved over Shabbos, the Rambam Medical Center in Haifa announced. He regained consciousness and his ventilator has been removed. His condition has now been upgraded to moderate.

YWN also reported that later on Shabbos, a 52-year-old man hospitalized at Rambam, who was seriously injured and had been placed on life support also regained consciousness. There are three other patients injured at Meron in the intensive care unit at the hospital who are still sedated and ventilated. The other patients are being treated at hospitals around the country.

On Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on Israelis to offer blood donations in wake of the deadly stampede. Netanyahu donated his blood at the Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem, with hundreds of Israelis around the country also heeding the emergency service’s call. The prime minister expressed his gratitude to Israelis who took part in the campaign, with hours-long lines forming at blood donation stations in multiple sites, as was reported by i24News.com

‘In moments that put us to a test, our people stand together, like they do today,’ Netanyahu said in a tweet.

Also on Friday, it was reported that President Biden spoke Netanyahu to offer his condolences and offer assistance.

He said, “The United States stands with the people of Israel, and with Jewish communities the world over, in mourning the terrible tragedy at Mount Meron.

I spoke with Prime Minister Netanyahu today to offer my profound condolences on behalf of the American people to our friends in Israel.

The loss of life among worshipers practicing their faith is heartbreaking. I have instructed my team to offer our assistance to the government and people of Israel as they respond to the disaster and care for the wounded. We are also working to confirm reports that American citizens may have lost their lives or been wounded during the religious observance of Lag B’Omer.

Our Embassy and Department of State will provide all necessary support to any U.S. citizens and their family members affected by this sad event.

The people of the United States and Israel are bound together by our families, our faiths, and our histories, and we will stand with our friends. Our prayers are with those who were injured and all those who lost loved ones. May their memories be a blessing.”

YWN reported that Netanyahu also received calls from Russian President Vladimir Putin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, European leaders, and Arab leaders, including the leaders of Bahrain and the UAE.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken also tweeted his condolences, writing: “We are deeply saddened to hear of the tragedy that occurred at Mt. Meron in Israel. We mourn the lives lost, extend our deepest condolences to the families, and pray for the injured to recover quickly.” President Reuven Rivlin received a phone call from Jordanian King Abdullah II, who expressed his condolences to the State of Israel on behalf of his people. Queen Elizabeth II also sent a condolence message to Rivlin.

Queen Elizabeth II of England also sent a message of condolence to the President of Israel.  She said, “I was deeply saddened by news of the disaster at the Lag B’Omer festival in Meron, Israel. My thoughts are with all those who have been injured and the friends and families of those who have lost their lives.  The have my deepest sympathies.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas sent a letter of condolence to President Rivlin. The president’s office said the letter expressed Abbas’ sorrow “for the tragedy that claimed the lives of dozens of victims. We are praying for the victims and hope for the recovery of those injured.”

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz wrote messages of condolences on Twitter.

On the local front, Rabbi Mendy Mirocznik of Staten Island who is the executive vice president of the Rabbinical Alliance of America said in statement sent to the media that: “The Rabbinical Alliance of America calls upon all members of the Jewish faith to engage in acts of kindness and charity in memory of the fallen, in addition to Torah study in their memory. Let us seize the moment and become more caring to our family, friends, neighbors and community. Let us show, in act and in speech, the importance of every individual. All people should know that we care about them, love them and consider them special and holy. Let us dedicate this positive change as a memorial to the victims who perished in the Meron accident and as a merit to those who need a recovery. We pray that the Almighty forgive the Jewish nation and that such tragedies should be no more.”