Experts have long warned that Mount Meron celebrations are ripe for disaster due to overcrowded conditions, large fires and hot weather.
At least 10 children and adolescents under the age of 18 were among 45 ultra-Orthodox Jews killed in a stampede at a religious holiday in northern Israel, according to a partial list of names released on Saturday as identification of the victims of Israel’s deadliest civil disaster continued.
Four Americans, a Canadian and an Argentinian were also among those killed. Two families each lost two children. The youngest victim was nine years old.
Meanwhile, calls grew on Saturday for the creation of an official commission of inquiry, in part to assess the responsibility of politicians and senior decision-makers for allowing the mass rally to take place, despite repeated warnings to the government. over the years regarding security breaches.
In a first response, the cabinet minister of the country who oversees the national police force defended the police handling of the event.
Friday’s stampede interrupted the annual Lag BaOmer festival on Mount Meron in Israel.
The festival had drawn some 100,000 people in the largest gathering so far this year, as Israel’s successful vaccination campaign allowed the country to break out of coronavirus restrictions.
As a large number of people started to leave one of the festival events, they crowded into a narrow tunnel-like passage that sloped down and ended with a series of steps.
The ground had become slippery with spilled water and juice, witnesses said. As some of the crowd slipped, those behind them fell on those on the ground.
Veteran paramedic Yossi Halabi told Israeli TV Channel 12 Saturday that he “encountered a wall of bodies” after being alerted for the first time to the disaster from his neighboring post.
He said it took him about 40 minutes to extract the dead and wounded from the chaos.
He said it was “one of the worst if not the worst incident” he had seen in 30 years on the job.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared Sunday a national day of mourning.
On Saturday evening, a vigil was held in Tel Aviv, where people lit memorial candles and the municipality illuminated the city hall with the Israeli flag.
Israeli media said 32 of the 45 victims were identified before the start of the Jewish Sabbath at sunset on Friday. Of these, 22 were buried before the Sabbath.
Identification of the remaining victims and burials resumed after sunset, as did some of the funerals. Jewish law calls for the rapid burial of the dead.
Sixteen people remained hospitalized, three of them in serious condition.
Lag BaOmer is very popular with Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community to honor Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd century sage and mystic who is believed to be buried there.
Crowds light bonfires, dance and have big festive meals as part of the celebrations. Across the country, even in secular areas, smaller groups gather in parks and forests for barbecues and bonfires.
Experts have long warned that Mount Meron celebrations are ripe for disaster due to overcrowded conditions, large fires and hot weather. In a 2008 report, the State Comptroller, a government watchdog office, warned that conditions at the site, including escape routes, “endanger the public.” The Justice Department said it was launching an investigation into possible criminal misconduct by police officers. Witnesses complained that the police barricades prevented people from getting out properly.
However, on Saturday there were growing demands, including from retired police commanders, for a formal commission of inquiry that could also review the decisions of political leaders.
In a Facebook post, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, chief police officer and close confidant of Netanyahu, praised the behavior of the police. He said he was ready to “take responsibility” and answer any questions. “I am responsible – but responsibility does not mean guilt,” he wrote.
According to guidelines from the Ministry of Health, public gatherings continue to be limited to a maximum of 500 people. But Israeli media said Netanyahu assured ultra-Orthodox leaders the celebrations would take place, despite objections from public health officials.
Mr. Netanyahu’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Mr. Netanyahu has long relied on powerful ultra-Orthodox parties as allies. He will need their support if he is to keep low hopes of staying in power after an inconclusive election in March, the fourth in just two years.
The coming week should be decisive for his so far unsuccessful efforts to form a coalition government with right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties.
Mr. Netanyahu has come under heavy criticism over the past year for allowing ultra-Orthodox communities to flout safety regulations by opening schools and synagogues and holding mass funerals. Ultra-Orthodox communities have been among the hardest hit by COVID-19.