Former Israeli PM Netanyahu warned over festival disaster

By Thomson Reuters Aug 30, 2022 | 10:29 AM

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A state commission of inquiry into one of Israel’s worst civil disasters issued a warning to former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and a senior police official on Tuesday that they may share responsibility for an accident that killed 45 people.

The committee investigated the circumstances of the disaster in which a crowd of thousands of pilgrims at a religious festival in northern Israel last year created a deadly stampede and crush in a narrow passageway.

As well as the 45 dead, at least 100 people were injured at the festival on the slopes of Mount Meron, which was packed with an estimated 100,000 worshippers.

The letter to Netanyahu, who leads Israel’s right wing opposition Likud party, said he “did not act as expected of a prime minister” to correct longstanding safety concerns at the site even though “he knew or should have known” of the concerns.

Those named by the commission have the chance to respond and a warning letter does not necessarily mean that any action will be taken against them.

The warning came just two months before an election in November that could see Netanyahu, already Israel’s longest serving prime minister, return to office for a sixth term.

Netanyahu’s Likud party said it shared the pain of families who had lost members in the disaster but accused the government of Prime Minister Yair Lapid of “political timing” in the release of the letter during the election campaign.

Before last year’s disaster, there had been concern for years about safety risks at the annual event, held at the tomb of a 2nd-century Jewish sage in the Galilee.

The letter said the poor state of the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai had been criticized by the State Comptroller’s office and brought before Cabinet on several occasions but that no action had been taken.

As well as Netanyahu and a number of former ministers and officials, the commission singled out Police Commissioner Yaakov Shabtai for allowing the festival to go ahead as planned despite knowing of the dangers at the site.

(Reporting by James Mackenzie; editing by Jonathan Oatis)