Israeli watchdog to investigate deadly festival stampede

FILE - In this Friday, April 30, 2021 file photo, Israeli security officials and rescuers stand near bodies of victims who died during Lag BaOmer celebrations at Mt. Meron in northern Israel. Israel's government watchdog agency said Monday that it will launch an investigation into the deadly stampede at the religious festival over the weekend that left 45 ultra-Orthodox Jews dead. (Ishay Jerusalemite/Behadrei Haredim via AP, File)
FILE - In this Friday, April 30, 2021 file photo, Israeli security officials and rescuers stand near bodies of victims who died during Lag BaOmer celebrations at Mt. Meron in northern Israel. Israel's government watchdog agency said Monday that it will launch an investigation into the deadly stampede at the religious festival over the weekend that left 45 ultra-Orthodox Jews dead. (Ishay Jerusalemite/Behadrei Haredim via AP, File)

Credit: Ishay Jerusalemite

Credit: Ishay Jerusalemite

Israel's government watchdog agency says it will launch an investigation into the deadly stampede at a religious festival over the weekend that left 45 ultra-Orthodox Jews dead

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel's governmental watchdog agency said Monday it would launch an investigation into the deadly stampede at a religious festival over the weekend that left 45 ultra-Orthodox Jews dead.

State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman told a press conference in Jerusalem his report would focus on the actions of decision makers, police and rescuers in the field.

“This is an event that could have been prevented,” he said. “I intend to open a special review that will investigate the circumstances that led to this disaster."

It was not immediately clear whether his announcement would end calls for an independent investigation.

Englman is seen as close to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who relies on the political support of ultra-Orthodox parties and whose government has come under fire for allowing the mass gathering. Englman said he has had no contact with Netanyahu recently.

Speaking at a Knesset memorial hearing, Netanyahu said Israel "will investigate in an orderly, in-depth, and responsible manner all the issues relating to the gathering on the mountain in the present and past,” he said. “We will learn all the lessons for the future so that a disaster like this won’t repeat itself.”

Netanyahu did not specify what kind of investigation would be conducted or what authorities it would have to gather information or hand out punishments.

Other members of Knesset, including Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, called for an independent state commission of inquiry into the incident, which would have broad powers to investigate.

Israel's attorney general informed Justice Minister Benny Gantz on Monday that there's no legal impediment preventing Israel's transition government from launching such an investigation.

Some 100,000 people, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, gathered for a Lag BaOmer festival at Mount Meron in northern Israel despite coronavirus restrictions limiting outdoor assemblies to 500 people and longstanding warnings about the safety of such gatherings. The state comptroller's office, under one of Englman's predecessors, issued a pair of reports in 2008 and 2011 warning that the conditions at Mount Meron were dangerous.

Early on Friday, thousands of people leaving one area of the site funneled through a narrow passageway descending the mountain. A slick slope caused people to slip and fall, resulting in a human avalanche that killed 45 people and and injured at least 150.

The tragedy brought renewed attention to Israel's ultra-Orthodox community, where many have flouted coronavirus restrictions over the past year and some leaders refuse to acknowledge the authority of the state. According to Israeli reports, ultra-Orthodox leaders put heavy pressure on the government to allow last week's celebration to take place without any restrictions.

FILE - In this Sunday, May 2, 2021 file photo, people gather around candles during a vigil in memory of the 45 ultra-Orthodox Jews killed in a stampede at a Lag BaOmer festival at Mount Meron in northern Israel on Friday, in Tel Aviv, Israel. Israel's government watchdog agency said Monday that it will launch an investigation into the deadly stampede at the religious festival over the weekend. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, File)
FILE - In this Sunday, May 2, 2021 file photo, people gather around candles during a vigil in memory of the 45 ultra-Orthodox Jews killed in a stampede at a Lag BaOmer festival at Mount Meron in northern Israel on Friday, in Tel Aviv, Israel. Israel's government watchdog agency said Monday that it will launch an investigation into the deadly stampede at the religious festival over the weekend. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty, File)

Credit: Oded Balilty

Credit: Oded Balilty

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men carry the body of Yossi Kohn, 21, from Cleveland, Ohio, who died during Lag BaOmer celebrations at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, at his funeral in Jerusalem, Sunday, May 2, 2021. A stampede at a religious festival attended by tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in northern Israel killed dozens of people and injured about 150 early Friday, medical officials said. It was one of the country's deadliest civilian disasters. (AP Photo/Oren Ben Hakoon)
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men carry the body of Yossi Kohn, 21, from Cleveland, Ohio, who died during Lag BaOmer celebrations at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, at his funeral in Jerusalem, Sunday, May 2, 2021. A stampede at a religious festival attended by tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in northern Israel killed dozens of people and injured about 150 early Friday, medical officials said. It was one of the country's deadliest civilian disasters. (AP Photo/Oren Ben Hakoon)

Credit: Oren Ben Hakoon

Credit: Oren Ben Hakoon

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men attend the funeral of Yossi Kohn, 21, from Cleveland, Ohio, who died during Lag BaOmer celebrations at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, in Jerusalem, Sunday, May 2, 2021. A stampede at a religious festival attended by tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in northern Israel killed dozens of people and injured about 150 early Friday, medical officials said. It was one of the country's deadliest civilian disasters. (AP Photo/Oren Ben Hakoon)
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men attend the funeral of Yossi Kohn, 21, from Cleveland, Ohio, who died during Lag BaOmer celebrations at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, in Jerusalem, Sunday, May 2, 2021. A stampede at a religious festival attended by tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in northern Israel killed dozens of people and injured about 150 early Friday, medical officials said. It was one of the country's deadliest civilian disasters. (AP Photo/Oren Ben Hakoon)

Credit: Oren Ben Hakoon

Credit: Oren Ben Hakoon

Israeli youths light candles in memory of the 45 ultra-Orthodox Jews killed in a stampede at a religious festival on Friday, during a vigil in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, May 2, 2021. The stampede early Friday had cut short the annual festival of Lag BaOmer on Israel's Mount Meron. The festival had drawn some 100,000 people in the largest gathering. It was one of the country's deadliest civilian disasters. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)
Israeli youths light candles in memory of the 45 ultra-Orthodox Jews killed in a stampede at a religious festival on Friday, during a vigil in Tel Aviv, Israel, Sunday, May 2, 2021. The stampede early Friday had cut short the annual festival of Lag BaOmer on Israel's Mount Meron. The festival had drawn some 100,000 people in the largest gathering. It was one of the country's deadliest civilian disasters. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Credit: Oded Balilty

Credit: Oded Balilty

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