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Probe says Israel PM bears 'responsibility' for deadly 2021 stampede

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, minister Amir Ohana and police chief Yaakov Shabtai, at the Mount Meron site
— Jerusalem (AFP)

A probe into Israel's worst civilian disaster on Wednesday found Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu "bears personal responsibility" for the 2021 stampede which killed 45 Jewish pilgrims.

Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews had converged on Mount Meron, near Israel's border with Lebanon, on April 30, 2021 for an annual pilgrimage to the tomb of a reputed second-century rabbi.

The stampede in the male section of the gender-segregated crowd is believed to have started as people moved through a narrow passageway that became a deadly chokepoint.

At least 16 children and teenagers were among the 45 dead.

"The prime minister is responsible for identifying proactively, by himself or through mechanisms on his behalf, issues that require the attention of his office and, if necessary, his intervention, in particular those related to a risk of human lives," said the commission of inquiry report into the stampede.

The inquiry found that from 2008 up to the day of the tragedy, the prime minister's office was notified on several occasions of the potential hazards caused by high traffic around the tomb of rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, also known by the Hebrew acronym Rashbi.

Netanyahu was in power for 12 of those years.

Israel observed a national day of mourning for the 45 ultra-Orthodox Jews killed in a 2021 stampede during the annual pilgrimage to Mount Meron.

"Netanyahu knew that the Rashbi's tomb site had been poorly cared for for years, and that this could create a risk for the multitudes of visitors to the place, especially in (the holiday of) Lag Ba'omer," the commission's report said.

"Netanyahu did not act as expected of a prime minister to correct this state of affairs," it said, without recommending any measures against him, citing the "unique" nature of his elected role.

"The writing on the wall had been there for many years. The disaster could have been prevented and it was a duty to prevent it," the report added.

- 'Lack of governance' -

Netanyahu's Likud party said in a statement that the investigation was politically motivated, noting that it was initiated under the previous government headed by then-prime minister Naftali Bennett and current opposition leader Yair Lapid.

"The cynical and deliberate attempt by Lapid to turn the Meron disaster into a political weapon won't succeed," Likud said.

Lapid called on Netanyahu to resign, warning on X, formerly Twitter, that "the next disaster is only a matter of time".

"If Netanyahu stays in his position, then we're just sitting here and waiting for the next disaster," Lapid said.

Personal responsibility was also attributed to parliament speaker Amir Ohana who served as minister overseeing the police at the time of the stampede.

The inquiry commission recommended not to appoint him as public security minister again.

The inquiry into the deadly stampede found that repeated safety warnings had been igonred

The commission also recommended that Israeli police chief Yaakov Shabtai be dismissed from his position.

Bennett, who replaced Netanyahu in June 2021, had made an electoral promise to set up the commission, opposed by Netanyahu who has since returned to power.

"We found a bad culture... of a lack of governance and rule of law, and an action pattern of procrastination and avoiding making decisions", the report concluded.

"A reality of conduct adversely affected by political interests and ulterior motives."

The report's findings echo criticisms in Israeli media against Netanyahu and his government for not anticipating the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel.

On that day, Hamas gunmen stormed across the border from Gaza into Israel and carried out the deadliest attack since the country was created in 1948.

The attack resulted in the death of around 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.

In retaliation, Israel announced it would destroy Hamas and began its heaviest-ever bombardment of the Gaza Strip.

Since then at least 30,717 people, mainly women and children, have been killed in the Palestinian territory, according to the health ministry there, which does not specify the number of killed Hamas militants.