The members of the state commission of inquiry into the Meron disaster heard dramatic testimony on Thursday incriminating Police Commissioner Yaakov Shabtai of ignoring clear warnings of risks to the public and dismissing proposals to minimize the risk.
The speaker was Amnon Alkalai, the head of the operations division of Israel Police at the time of the Meron disaster, who claimed that Shabtai’s unwillingness to listen to his advice played a large role in the Meron disaster. He described how he warned Shabtai of the risks 11 days before Lag B’Omer but Shabtai refused to consider the solutions he suggested.
“I recommended limiting the number of participants but the commissioner completely ruled it out,” Alkalai said. “He said ‘either black or white’ – either the mountain is fully open or it’s closed completely. I thought it was a mistaken decision. I said that the main problem is the overcrowding and the risk of public harm, and if so, prepare for a multi-casualty event.”
Alkalai explained that he requested to limit the size of the crowd in the areas of the hadlakos and on Har Meron itself, to solve not only the risk of a coronavirus outbreak, but also the issue of the overcrowding at the site and the resulting security issues. He proposed a plan that would still allow people to come to Meron but at the same time, ensure their safety. “I proposed a plan to decrease the crowd and he made a decision of either zero or everyone.”
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Alkalai said that after the discussion during which Shabtai made the decision not to restrict the crowd on Lag B’Omer he approached him afterward and “expressed my dissatisfaction with the decision in a very decisive way.”
“In mid-March, I requested to leave my position due to this, that I felt the decision-making progress was flawed, the manner in which decisions were made was incorrect as well as the commissioner’s authority to make decisions in a chain of operational and organizational events. I told the commissioner that I can’t fulfill my responsibility in this manner. There was a chain of events. At his request, I agreed to stay for another year. Throughout my years of service, I saw many incidents of flawed decision-making processes.”
The head of the commission, former Supreme Court President Miriam Naor, responded: “So I’ll put things bluntly – you are telling us that the commissioner’s decision during the discussion was a wrong decision.”
Alkalai replied: “Yes.”
Naor asked: “And was [the Meron disaster] the result of the fact that he didn’t heed your advice on April 19?”
Alkalai responded: “I don’t want to blame [the Meron disaster] on this decision but the nature of the incident was greatly influenced by the decision. If the police were determined to comply with regulations, I think the situation would be different.”
According to Alkalai, hours after that discussion, there was a twist in the plot, when Shabtai informed him that he had changed his mind and decided to implement restrictions on Lag B’Omer. He updated the Northern District Commander Shimon Lavie and coronavirus czar Prof. Nachman Ash of the decision.
“But days before the incident, Ash informed me that there are no regulations because there’s no agreement between the Ministry of Religious Affairs and the police. I said it isn’t related to the police but the legal adviser to the police said that no body has the authority to implement restrictions at Meron. After a few hours, I received a message to join a ministerial meeting with Shabtai, during which he said: “If there’s a commission of inquiry, blame it on me that I didn’t limit the number of people.”
Alkalai added that he believes that the decision not to limit the crowd was due to political circumstances – and was not a professional decision. He claimed that the restrictions placed on Charedim outside Jerusalem on entering the city on Shushan Purim, as well as the clashes between the Chareidi sector and the police during the coronavirus era in general, caused a crisis between the police and the Chareidi public.
“As a result of the blockade on Shushan Purim, there was great anger from the public which was directed at its public representatives and the police. I suspect that this background influenced the decision-makers on Lag B’Omer,” he said.
(YWN Israel Desk – Jerusalem)