Israeli investigation into deadly rush hears first witnesses


JERUSALEM, Aug. 22 (Reuters) – A state investigation into an April rush to a Jewish pilgrimage site that killed 45 people, including U.S. and Canadian citizens, began hearing testimony on Sunday to determine what led to Israel worst civil catastrophe.

Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews flocked to the annual Lag B’Omer festival, which includes all night prayers, mystical songs and dances, on April 30 at the tomb of the second century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in Galilee. During the ceremony, some of the crowd streamed into a narrow tunnel and 45 men and boys were suffocated or trampled.

Years ago, the Israeli government considered Mount Meron dangerous. Although the number of believers at the site this year was lower than in previous years, it was still above the COVID-19 curbs of the time.

Some Israelis had questioned whether the previous Benjamin Netanyahu government and police were unwilling to further limit the crowd due to pressure from influential ultra-Orthodox leaders.

Netanyahu had promised a thorough investigation, but his cabinet, which included ultra-Orthodox ministers, never took formal action, and less than two weeks later, major hostilities broke out between Israel and the militant Palestinian group Hamas.

Established shortly after a new government was sworn in, the state commission of inquiry has judicial powers to summon witnesses and ask them to produce any documents or other evidence it deems relevant. The results are presented to the government, although they are not legally binding.

The hearings are public and will be streamed online.

Should the panel, under the direction of a former Super Court chief, discover suspected criminal behavior, it would have to report it to the Israeli attorney general. Her first witness on Sunday was the Northern District Police Commander Shimon Lavi.

Reporting by Maayan Lubell Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

Our standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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