Israel’s Netanyahu warned in probe of deadly 2021 stampede

JERUSALEM (AP) — The independent commission investigating a deadly stampede at a religious festival in northern Israel last year said Tuesday that then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top officials might be found partly responsible for the disaster.

The announcement could harm Netanyahu — who is already on trial for corruption — ahead of Nov. 1 elections in which he hopes to become prime minister again. Netanyahu testified last month that he was not responsible for safety measures at the site.

Netanyahu’s Likud party said it was “unfortunate” that the commission, which was appointed by the government that replaced his last year, had issued the warning letters in the run-up to the election, implying it was biased.

Forty-five people died in a deadly stampede at the religious festival at Mount Meron in April 2021, which was attended by some 100,000 mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews. It was the worst civilian disaster in Israel’s history, and came amid longstanding warnings about safety and overcrowding at the site.

The independent commission set up to probe the disaster said that Netanyahu, who had been prime minister for the past 12 years, “knew, or should have known” that the site had been poorly maintained for years.

“Former prime minister Netanyahu did not act as expected of a prime minister to correct the situation,” it said, adding that the issue had been raised with the government on several occasions prior to the tragedy.

The commission issued similar warnings to Amir Ohana, the former public security minister; Rabbi Yaakov Avitan, the former religious affairs minister, and Yaakov Shabtai, the current Israeli police chief. They will have the opportunity to testify again before the commission’s final report, which is expected in the coming months.

Last week, Israel Police Northern District Chief Shimon Lavi resigned, accepting responsibility for the disaster.

In his testimony before the committee last month, Netanyahu said he wasn’t responsible for safety measures and had only stepped in because of the coronavirus pandemic. At the time, Health Ministry guidelines limited attendance at outdoor events to 500 people.

Netanyahu also said he had done more than his predecessors to address the safety issues.

The independent commission is investigating major safety lapses and overcrowding at the mountaintop site and has recommended limiting attendance and revamping safety protocols and infrastructure.

Hundreds of people bottlenecked in a narrow passageway descending the mountain, and a slippery slope caused people to stumble and fall. The resulting human avalanche killed 45 people and injured at least 150.

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, hopes to return to office after Israel holds its fifth election in less than four years. His deeply polarizing leadership is one again expected to be the main issue dividing voters.

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