Israel’s unbearable agony over ‘preventable’ deaths

There is a growing consensus that the disaster was avoidable


2FKA873 Meron, Israel. 30th Apr 2021. Rescuers work on the site of a stampede accident in Mount Meron, Israel, April 30, 2021. An apparent stampede occured at an overcrowded Israeli festival after midnight Thursday, causing dozens of casualties, local media reported. The tragedy, which happened in northern Israel, left 50 people injured and around 20 in critical condition, and many people are feared dead, the Haaretz daily cited Israeli ambulance service Magen David Adom as estimating. Credit: Xinhua/Alamy Live News

As Israel reels from shock after its worst civilian disaster, there is a growing chorus of officials and politicians with a haunting message: it was avoidable.

On Monday, three days after 45 people were fatally crushed at a mass religious event on Mount Meron in the Galilee, the state watchdog said that the disaster “could have been prevented”.

Since the moment of the tragedy, during Lag B’Omer celebrations in the early hours of Friday morning, there has been widespread criticism of authorities. They have been accused of allowing close to 100,000 people to attend the annual event, disregarding safety.

When the state comptroller spoke at Monday’s special press conference he became the highest-ranking official to take this view. His words were unsurprising, given that his office had warned repeatedly of the dangers at Meron, but they were stark.

He said: “Unfortunately, this is an event that could have been prevented and now it is up to us to evaluate and to probe how this occurrence should have been prevented.”

Police officers have also been criticised for failing to enable quicker evacuation, with some claims that their actions were actually counter-productive. Israel’s public security minister Amir Ohana, who oversees the police, was reported as saying that he is “responsible” for what happened — meaning it falls under his remit — but “that does not mean blame.”

Politicians are under scrutiny for decision making, with speculation that the current government and its predecessors failed to limit numbers because they feared a backlash from two strictly-Orthodox parties that normally sit in coalitions. The head of one of the parties, Aryeh Deri from Shas, lobbied against restrictions on numbers this year, though he has claimed since the disaster that he opposed only the coronavirus restrictions.

The night ended with rescue workers taking bodies for identification. Reuven Reuven, a volunteer from the ZAKA emergency service, told the JC: “We started picking them up, one by one, so small, not the age that people should die, but rather young people who were dancing just a few minutes previously”. He said he did not have enough body bags and cut up curtains to cover the bodies as he waited for refrigerated trucks to take them to the forensics centre.

The man who pronounced 39 of the victims dead, Dr Roi Babila, later spoke of the “indescribable” emotional difficulty he had in carrying out his responsibilities, telling local media it is a task that makes you “break apart inside.”

As the long process of investigating the disaster began, families of the dead held tear-soaked burials. At the funeral of Yedidya Hayut, his father Yedidya described him as a “holy child” while a huge crowd of mourners thronged the streets, and the sobbing of some of them echoed through the sound system.

His mother, Mira, later told Israel’s Channel 12 that she immigrated from Venezuela, where the Jewish community is united, and was baffled that in Israel there is “hatred and division” between Jews of different stripes. She expressed hope that the tragedy will lead to unity.

In the immediate aftermath of the tragedy there have been acts of social solidarity. In Arab villages near Meron, residents set up stations with food and drink for people fleeing the site. On Sunday, which was declared a national day of mourning, tributes were held across the country and the city hall in predominantly-secular Tel Aviv was lit up to memorialise the mostly-Charedi dead. Nationwide, people donated blood to help the injured.

Solidarity extended beyond Israel, with condolences received by officials in Jerusalem from the Palestinian Authority and others in the region, including Egypt, Jordan, Bahrain, Morocco, the United Arab Emirates. Further afield, the Queen said that she was “deeply saddened,” Boris Johnson said his thoughts were with Israelis and US President Joe Biden called Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to offer comfort.

President Reuven Rivlin said families that have been bereaved, or are struggling with the uncertainty of having a relative missing are going through pain that is “hard to grasp.” But he added: “I am with you in your pain. All Israelis are with you in your pain.”

While Israeli society is largely united in support of the bereaved and injured, there is deep division in politics regarding responses to the tragedy.

Mr Netanyahu has called for declarations of blame to be put on hold. “It is easy to be inflammatory and assign blame,’ he said. “It is harder to grit one’s teeth. There will yet be an opportunity for debates and controversies.”

But the disaster, and methods of investigation, are already political hot potatoes. Opposition head Yair Lapid has said that a comptroller investigation is not enough and attacked Mr Netanyahu for failing to launch a full state investigation. “The tragedy was preventable, with proper management, with basic security measures,” Mr Lapid fumed on Monday.

“Israel is in a dangerous place,” he continued. “We don’t have a functioning government. Instead of taking responsibility they’re running away from it. Instead of forming a state commission of inquiry, everyone is blaming everyone else.”

Some bereaved families are also pushing hard for a state commission. According to a report in Haaretz, some are trying to organise a lawsuit against parties they feel are responsible.

But for now, the families are focused on sitting shiva. The Jewish Agency has been providing financial support of around £1,000 to each family, in a move intended to show moral support as well as help with immediate costs. “This expression of unwavering support is a true example of how all Jews are responsible for one another,” said its head, Isaac Herzog.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive