Israel’s Netanyahu booed by bereaved protesters at stampede site

The Israeli PM calls for a day of mourning on Sunday as he announces an investigation into the stampede that killed 45 people.

Netanyahu visited the site of the stampede but faced protests [Ronen Zvulun/AFP]

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised a full investigation into the deadly stampede at a Jewish religious festival in the town of Mount Meron, where he was booed by protesting relatives of the victims.

According to the Israeli media, protesters on Friday hurled empty bottles and shouted insults at Netanyahu, who travelled to the pilgrimage site in the north of the country, where at least 45 people died and 150 others were injured in the stampede during Lag BaOmer celebrations.

Netanyahu, who described it as one of the “worst” disasters in Israel’s history, announced Sunday to be a “national day of mourning” and expressed sympathy to the families of the victims. He also met police and others involved in rescue efforts.

“What happened here is heartbreaking. There were people crushed to death, including children,” Netanyahu said.

Meanwhile, President Reuven Rivlin’s office called for those in search of people still missing to contact the presidential office. “We will make every effort to find them,” he said.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein visited some of the injured at Ziv Medical Center in northern Israel’s Safed. Edelstein said almost all of the victims had been identified, according to Israeli media.

Oversized crowd

The incident took place when large numbers of people trying to exit the site thronged a narrow tunnel-like passage. People began falling on each other near the end of the walkway, as they descended slippery metal stairs, witnesses said.

Closed last year due to coronavirus restrictions, this year’s pilgrimage drew tens of thousands of people who were seen packed together joyfully singing, dancing and lighting bonfires before the deadly crush.

Authorities had allowed 10,000 people to gather at the site of the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second-century Talmudic sage, but organisers said more than 650 buses had been chartered from across the country, bringing at least 30,000 pilgrims to Mount Meron.

Eli Beer, director of the Hatzalah rescue service, told the army radio station he was horrified by how crowded the event was, saying the site was equipped to handle perhaps a quarter of the number who were there.

Later on Friday, funerals were held in Jerusalem and the mainly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, where haredi men in traditional long black coats lined the streets to mourn.

Shalom Levy, attending a funeral, called the stampede “a tragedy for the Jewish people”.

About 5,000 police had been deployed to secure the event, the country’s largest public gathering during the coronavirus pandemic.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies