Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Friday launched an investigation into the conduct of police at a deadly crush during Lag BaOmer celebrations in northern Israel late Thursday as the regional police commander said he took full responsibility.
At least 45 people were killed and dozens more injured in a stampede as attendees left an event put on by the Toldos Aharon Hassidic sect at the celebrations on Mount Meron late Thursday night.
"The Police Department for Internal Investigations will begin reviewing the events to see if there is any criminal culpability on the part of members of the police in the disaster," a spokesperson for Mandelblit said, adding that the police were instructed not to interview any of their members.
"Our investigators are already on the scene," the spokesperson said.
A spokesperson for the police said it was the department that requested that the investigation be carried out by the external body.
The probe came as the commander of the Israel Police northern district, Maj. Gen. Shimon Lavi, shouldered the blame for the disaster that left at least 45 dead and over a hundred injured.
"I take full responsibility," Lavi told reporters early Friday.
"We were prepared for any eventuality, but the tragic event occurred. We are collecting evidence to help us find the truth," he said.
But a senior police official said the government bore responsibility for the tragedy and that senior decision-makers allowed free access to the celebrations, resulting in overcrowding and the ensuing stampede.
"This narrow passageway was approved by engineers," the official said of the exact location of the crush.
"The Northern District of the police was prepared for any eventuality ahead of the Thursday holiday celebrations," the official said.
"Maj. Gen. Lavi toured the site in advance and told organizers he was worried that barriers put in place were dangerous for children," he said.
"He also met with religious leaders at the site and resisted their demand that more participants be allowed. Imagine how much worse things could have been. It is the responsibility of the state," he added.
Israel Police spokesperson Eli Levi told Ynet on Friday morning that all relevant governmental authorities approved the passageway in which the stampede occurred.
"Everyone understood that after the festivities were banned last year because of the coronavirus pandemic, there would be large crowds at Mount Meron this year," he said.
It remains unclear whether the police knew in real time how many people were actually in attendance when the disaster struck.
Officials said in the weeks leading up to the holiday that hundreds of thousands would be allowed to participate.
The entire compound has just one point of entry through a single access road that should have allowed authorities to control the number of people entering the site.
Police said they had deployed 5,000 of their members to secure the event, but neither the police nor the organizers were able to anticipate the tragedy that unfolded - begging the question why.
Investigators will have to determine who approved the narrow passageway in and out of the Toldos Aharon compound, whether it was approved by an engineer or the police, and why it was not considered a danger given the scale of the event.
The investigators will examine why the event was allowed to take place given police concern over the size of the expected crowd, and why the government had not made the site safer to accommodate hundreds of thousands of people and ensure better crowd control.
Preliminary investigations found the disaster began when some of the people exiting the compound slipped and fell, causing the hundreds of people that followed to tumble onto them.