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Israel mourns after a religious festival turns into disaster

Mourners carry the body of a person who died during Lag B'Omer celebrations at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, at his funeral in Jerusalem on Friday. 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.
Mourners carry the body of a person who died during Lag B'Omer celebrations at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, at his funeral in Jerusalem on Friday. 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.Ariel Schalit/Associated Press

JERUSALEM — As Israelis mourned on Friday the 45 people trampled to death during a pilgrimage that drew tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews, questions were already arising about poor planning and possible negligence.

For more than a decade there have been concerns and warnings that the religious site on Mount Meron in northern Israel was not equipped to handle tens of thousands of pilgrims. In 2008 and 2011, reports by the state comptroller at the time warned of the potential for calamity there.

“We will conduct a thorough, serious and deep investigation to ensure such a disaster does not happen again,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged on a visit to the site Friday. He called for a national day of mourning Sunday.

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Even for a country accustomed to the trauma of wars and terrorist attacks, this counted as one of the worst disasters in Israeli history.

Israel has been wracked by religious-secular tensions, particularly over the last year during the pandemic, amid widespread anger over what many here viewed as a disregard for regulations and displays of autonomy by parts of the ultra-Orthodox community. The disaster early Friday largely united the country in shock and grief, but it also underlined some of the divisions plaguing this society.

Up to 100,000 people were crammed onto the mountain late Thursday, most having arrived on organized buses to celebrate the holiday. The festivities turned to horror about an hour after midnight, when scores of adults and children were crushed and suffocated in an overcrowded, narrow passageway that turned into a death trap, according to witnesses.

The crush occurred after celebrants poured out of one section of the mountainside compound down some steps and into the passageway with a sloping metal floor. Some people at the front fainted or slipped, causing a bottleneck, witnesses said, and setting off what witnesses described as a “human avalanche.”

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One of the injured, Chaim Vertheimer, said that the passageway was slippery from spilled water and grape juice.

“For some reason, there was sudden pressure at this point and people stopped. But more people kept coming down,” Vertheimer told the Hebrew news site Ynet, speaking from his hospital bed. “People were not breathing. I remember hundreds of people screaming ‘I can’t breathe’.”

Another of the injured, Dvir Cohen, said a large number of people were trying to leave at once.

“There was a staircase where the first people tripped and everyone just trampled them. I was in the second row of people,” he said. “People trampled on me, hundreds of them.”

Minutes earlier, thousands of men had been bobbing and swaying on the bleachers in time to music. Israeli authorities had placed no restrictions on the number of attendees, despite warnings by some health officials about the risk of COVID-19 transmission.

Though the sight of so many people gathered together and unmasked may be jarring to most of the world, life in Israel has returned almost to normal in recent weeks after a successful national vaccination drive.

The majority of the adult population is fully vaccinated. But many in the crowds were under the age of 16 and not yet eligible for vaccination.

The annual gathering on Mount Meron, which is near the Sea of Galilee, takes place near the mystical city of Safed. The holiday, Lag b’Omer, is linked in Jewish tradition to the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans in the first century A.D. and for many ultra-Orthodox Jews, it is a highlight of the Hebrew calendar.

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It was the largest single gathering in Israel since the start of the pandemic.

By Friday afternoon, many of the dead had been identified and families were rushing to bury them before the start of the Sabbath at sundown. According to Israeli news media, at least two of the victims came from the United States and one from Canada.

The compound on Mount Meron includes several large gathering grounds with bleachers and stages, connected by a series of alleyways and paths.

The 2008 comptroller report said that all building additions and changes made to the pilgrimage site had been done without the approval of the local and district planning and building committees.

“There are no grounds for permitting the current situation to continue,” one comptroller report said.

The comptroller’s office said that special danger was posed by the access roads and paths, which “are narrow and not appropriate to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of people who visit the site.” It was along one of those paths where witnesses said the crush of people began.

Despite the warnings that the infrastructure could not safely bear large crowds, one former official, Shlomo Levy, who had chaired the Upper Galilee Regional Council, said he had come under political pressure to cancel a warrant he had issued in 2008 to close the tomb compound because of safety concerns.

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Levy told Kan, Israel’s public radio, that the public security minister at the time told him he was afraid to touch the site and that it was a “hot potato.”

That wariness stems from the disproportionate political power long held by ultra-Orthodox parties in Israel’s coalition system. The ultra-Orthodox have been crucial members of successive Netanyahu-led governing coalitions.