Netanyahu resisting pressure to set up a state commission to investigate stampede

Justice minister says tragedy underlined the dangers of ultra-Orthodox “autonomy” within Israeli society

 Ultra-Orthodox mourners during the funeral of Daniel Ambon from Argentina who died in the stampede in Mount Meron. Photograph: Abir Sultan/EPA

Ultra-Orthodox mourners during the funeral of Daniel Ambon from Argentina who died in the stampede in Mount Meron. Photograph: Abir Sultan/EPA

 

As Israel buried the last of the dead from the Mount Meron religious festival stampede, prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu is resisting pressure to set up a state commission of inquiry to investigate the country’s biggest civilian disaster.

During a memorial session of the Knesset on Monday for the 45 victims, Mr Netanyahu promised the incident would be investigated from every angle.

“The families are not alone and this is the most important thing,” he said, vowing the government would help them.

However, he fell short of supporting the proposal of justice minister Benny Gantz, head of the centrist Blue and White party, for an independent state commission of inquiry, headed by a supreme court judge, that would have the teeth to investigate all aspects of the tragedy along with the responsibility of the political echelon, including some of Mr Netanyahu’s closest political allies.

The victims died and hundreds more were injured in a crush during celebrations on Friday marking the festival of Lag B’Omer at the foot of Mount Meron in northern Israel.

The overwhelming majority of the victims were members of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community and some commentators have blamed ultra-Orthodox leaders for preventing the state from assuming responsibility of the pilgrimage site at Mount Meron in northern Israel where the incident took place.

Mr Gantz told the Knesset memorial session the tragedy underlined the dangers of ultra-Orthodox “autonomy” within Israeli society.

“Our obligation is to transform this national tragedy into change,” he said. “Israel cannot allow itself autonomies in which people do whatever they please. There is one law for all and everyone has the right to practice their faith and traditions under the auspices of the state.”

Different bodies

The police have already begun an investigation but police commissioner Kobi Shabtai on Monday fended off criticism for the Lag BaOmer festival and pointed an accusing finger at “many different bodies” for years-long neglect of the site.

State comptroller Matanyahu Englman also announced a special investigation into the incident.

“This was a disaster that could have been prevented. Now it is incumbent upon us to evaluate and probe how to prevent another incident like this,” Mr Englman said.

However, the state comptroller is considered close to Mr Netanyahu, who appointed him to the position, and critics have argued that the aim of such an investigation would be to prevent a more comprehensive – and potentially more damaging – probe.

Earlier, attorney general Avichai Mendelblit clarified there was no legal impediment to establishing a state commission of inquiry during Israel’s current transitional government as contacts continue between party leaders aimed at forming a new government.

“The best way to clarify the circumstances surrounding this tragedy and to learn the necessary lessons that will prevent such a thing from happening again, is to carry out an investigation under a singular body,” Mr Mendelblit said, “not via a multiplicity of decentralised investigations.”