Monday, 17 May 2021

Israel stampede: Country mourns as pressure mounts over inquiry into fatal festival crush

Israel is observing a day of mourning for the 45 people crushed to death at a Jewish religious festival – as questions are raised about how the disaster happened.

At least 45 people died during the Lag B’Omer event on the slopes of Mount Meron, where annual commemorations include all-night prayers, singing and dancing.

The overnight annual pilgrimage by crowds of up to 100,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews to the tomb of a second-century Jewish mystic, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, in northern Israel ended in a deadly stampede, which became one of the country’s worst civilian disasters.

Witnesses described a pyramid of bodies, including several children, in a packed and slippery metal-floored passageway.

More than 100 people were injured.

And on Sunday, Israeli culture minister Hili Tropper called for an inquiry to investigate how the tragedy happened.

Devastated families had to identify loved ones caught in the crush and bury them just hours after the disaster in accordance with Jewish tradition.

More than 20 of the victims were buried that night, including 13-year-old Yedidya Chayut.

At the boy’s funeral, his father Avigdor Chayut said: “I only wish that we achieve even a small fraction of your
stature in studies and holy devotion.”

An unknown number of US citizens, two Canadians and an Argentinian were also among the dead.

US media has identified some of those killed, including a 19-year-old student who was in Israel on a gap year.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was among those donating blood for the victims, declared Sunday a national day of mourning.

He called the crush one of the “heaviest disasters” in Israeli history and promised a full investigation to ensure it did not happen again.

The Queen sent a message of condolence to the president of Israel, saying she was “deeply saddened” by the incident and that her thoughts were with the families of those who lost their lives.

Israeli media reported that state investigators had labelled the pilgrimage site as hazardous years ago.

Questions were also being raised as to whether the government and police had been reluctant to reduce the crowd
size so as not to anger influential ultra-Orthodox rabbis and politicians.

“A thorough inquiry is required,” Mr Tropper told Kan public radio.

“This terrible disaster will help everyone understand … that there should be no place where the state does not set the rules.”

The justice ministry said investigators would look into whether there had been any police misconduct.

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