Police chief Kobi Shabtai
Police chief Kobi Shabtai Meir Vaknin/Flash90

Following the tragedy in Meron last Lag b'Omer, in which 45 people lost their lives, the government established a commission of inquiry to determine the causes of the tragedy and make recommendations to avert future disasters. In November of 2021, the commission issued its interim recommendations which included suggestions for the coming year's procedures; it has yet, however, to apportion blame for what happened.

In testimony given before the commission, Northern District Police Commissioner Shimon Lavie said that he had no answer to the question of "what caused the tragedy. Now, according to a report in the Israel Hayom newspaper, Police Chief Kobi Shabtai intends to testify that "engineering failures" were responsible for the tragedy, thus excusing the police entirely of what occurred.

To date, no police officer has been removed from his position due to what happened in Meron, despite multiple witness accounts suggesting that police actions on the day caused a massive bottleneck in crowds seeking to leave one main area via a single exit that was left open.

Shabtai is due to testify before the commission this coming Tuesday. A source considered close to Shabtai told Israel Hayom that Shabtai's "involvement in the event in Meron was focused on specific aspects," and that the main difficulty confronting the commission of inquiry was lack of willingness on the part of successive governments to adequately organize the event and a determination to let it take place regardless of arrangements.

Shabtai is expected to explain to the commission's panel that police in Meron were only responsible for enforcing public order. "The police did not organize the event and did not direct proceedings," the source said. "Commissioner Shabtai will attempt to establish this before the commission's panel, and argue that police prepared for the event in Meron in the same manner as they prepare for any other event. The police are not responsible for the infrastructure at the site, nor are they responsible for the security arrangements. They do not have any expert knowledge of the necessary engineering issues that need to be addressed."

Others who have spoken with Shabtai recently also revealed to Israel Hayom that, "From his point of view, what happened was first and foremost due to a failure of the engineering infrastructure, similar to what happened when the bridge collapsed at the Maccabiah Games in 1997, when it was clear that engineering failings led to the disaster. If there had not been 100 people on the bridge and only 30, the bridge would not have collapsed. But the bridge had to hold a greater number of people, and so it did collapse."

Four people were killed and over 60 were injured when a bridge over the Yarkon River collapsed during a parade of athletes. It later emerged that the bridge was shoddily constructed out of a desire to save money.

The sources added that a similar cause lay behind the disaster at the Versailles wedding hall in 2001 in which 23 people lost their lives. "If there had not been 400 people dancing on the floor, most likely it would not have collapsed. It is clear that these two incidents were caused by engineering failures, as was the case in Meron," they insisted.

However, the sources failed to account for a key distinction between the incidents - namely, that the annual event in Meron has been conducted in a similar manner for decades, the only clear difference between what happened last year and what happened every other year being the behavior of police at the site, as attested to by multiple accounts. In the case of the bridge over the Yarkon River, it was constructed for the specific event during which the tragedy occurred; in the tragedy at the Versailles hall, supporting pillars had been removed shortly before the collapse.