View Source

In Israel, dozens die in a stampede at a mass religious gathering held despite Covid warnings.

Israelis mourned on Friday the loss of life when a joyous pilgrimage that drew tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews abruptly turned into a tragedy. And although the country was largely united in grief and shock, questions immediately arose about poor planning and possible negligence.

Even for a country accustomed to the trauma of wars and terrorist attacks, the deadly crush that killed 45 people during a mass religious celebration on Mount Meron in the northern Galilee region counted as one of the worst disasters in Israeli history.

There had been warnings for years that the site’s patchy infrastructure could not safely handle large crowds. The pilgrimage was also held despite warnings from Israeli health officials that it could become a Covid-19 superspreader event.

“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 on Friday. He called for a national day of mourning on Sunday.

to get vaccinated. About 56 percent of the Israeli population had been fully vaccinated for Covid-19 as of Thursday, according to a New York Times database.

View Source

Israel Mourns After Stampede at Religious Festival Kills 45

JERUSALEM — Israelis mourned on Friday the loss of life when a joyous pilgrimage that drew tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews abruptly turned into a tragedy. And although the country was largely united in grief and shock, questions immediately arose about poor planning and possible negligence.

Even for a country accustomed to the trauma of wars and terrorist attacks, the deadly crush that killed 45 people during a mass religious celebration on Mount Meron in the northern Galilee region counted as one of the worst disasters in Israeli history.

There had been warnings for years that the site’s patchy infrastructure could not safely handle large crowds.

“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 on Friday. He called for a national day of mourning on Sunday.

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 the Hebrew news site Ynet described as a “human avalanche.”

One of the injured, Chaim Vertheimer, said that the slope 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,” Mr. Vertheimer told Ynet, speaking from his hospital bed in the holy city of Safed. “People were not breathing. I remember hundreds of people screaming ‘I can’t breathe’.”

Another of the injured, Dvir Cohen, said that 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. The Israeli authorities had placed no restrictions on the numbers of attendees, despite warnings about the risk of Covid-19 transmission.

Though the sight of so many people gathered together 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.

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.

But the celebrations were very curtailed last year because of the pandemic with few people allowed to attend.

Large numbers of ultra-Orthodox and traditional Jews make the pilgrimage to the mountain for days of festivities. They light bonfires around the grave site of a second-century sage, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, in the hope that they will receive his blessings on the anniversary of his death.

There were warnings that the infrastructure could not safely bear large crowds. However, critics say some officials may have been deterred from restricting access to the site in part because of the political power the ultra-Orthodox parties have held in successive Netanyahu-led governing coalitions.

Relations between the ultra-Orthodox community and the Israeli mainstream have come under particular strain during the pandemic as parts of the religious public flouted lockdown regulations and the government and police were often lax in enforcing them.

But in a show of national unity on Friday, Israelis across the nation lined up to donate blood for the injured in response to a call by the emergency services.

View Source

What We Know About the Deadly Stampede in Israel

The morning after a deadly stampede on a mountainside in Israel left at least 45 people dead and scores more injured, the authorities were investigating on Friday how a joyous religious ceremony was transformed into one of the deadliest civilian disasters in the nation’s history.

By some estimates, roughly 100,000 people had thronged to the Mount Meron tomb of an ancient rabbi, the site of the annual celebration, congregating around towering bonfires that lit up the night sky in the northern reaches of the country. It was the largest gathering since the start of the coronavirus pandemic and was held despite concerns that it could fuel an outbreak.

But an evening of prayer and dancing turned chaotic around 1 a.m., when thousands of people found themselves trapped in a crush.

Witnesses described a desperate scene, as an avalanche of people surged, with adults and children caught in the maelstrom struggling for air.

Videos showed rescue workers desperately trying to tear down metal barriers as they struggled to reach victims. Zaki Heller, a spokesman for the Magen David Adom rescue service, said 150 people had been hospitalized, with several in critical condition.

Mr. Heller told Israel Army Radio that “no one had ever dreamed” something like this could happen. “In one moment, we went from a happy event to an immense tragedy,” he said.

Two different witnesses told Haaretz that a police barricade prevented people from exiting and caused overcrowding. Television images also showed a side door in the evacuated passageway that had been locked shut.

On Friday morning, the Justice Ministry said that a police internal investigations department had begun a probe into possible criminal misconduct by officers.

reported to have thrown stones and other objects at police officers who tried to control the crowd.

But the country’s swift inoculation campaign and plummeting infection rates have allowed it to take rapid steps back toward normalcy in recent weeks. Earlier this month, Israel lifted its outdoor mask mandate and fully reopened schools for the first time since September.

About 56 percent of the Israeli population had been fully vaccinated for Covid-19 as of Thursday, according to a New York Times database.

The pilgrimage was held this year despite warnings from Israeli health officials that it could lead to coronavirus cases — a danger heightened by the fact that some parts of ultra-Orthodox communities have been hesitant to get vaccinated.

A police spokesman told Israeli news media that overall capacity at Mount Meron was similar to previous years but that this time bonfire areas were partitioned off as a coronavirus precaution. Religious leaders suggested on Friday that those precautions might be partly to blame for the disaster.

On Thursday, before the stampede, the Israeli police said they had arrested two people for disrupting officers’ efforts to keep order at the site. But the crowd was so vast, the police said, that they could not make people obey coronavirus restrictions.

wrote on Twitter. “What happened here is heartbreaking. There were people crushed to death, including children. Many of those who died have not yet been identified.”

Every year, tens of thousand of believers make an annual pilgrimage to the tomb of a second-century sage, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, on the slopes of Mount Meron in northern Israel.

The rabbi was among the first to publicly teach the mystical dimension of the Torah known as the kabbalah. The holiday, Lag b’Omer, features the lighting of bonfires to represent the spiritual light that can be found within the mystical teachings of the Torah.

The holiday is also linked in Jewish tradition to the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans in the first century A.D.

While the holiday is marked by the faithful around the world, pilgrims travel to Mount Meron in the hope that they will receive the blessings of the rabbi on the anniversary of his death.

View Source