Israel observes day of mourning for religious festival dead

At least 45 people were crushed to death on Friday during a stampede at an ultra-Orthodox faith event.

The victims died when the festival ended in a stampede after crowds became trapped and people panicked [Oded Balilty/AP]

Israel is observing a day of mourning for 45 people crushed to death at a Jewish religious festival, with flags lowered to half-staff and questions raised about accountability for one of the country’s worst civilian disasters.

In accordance with Jewish tradition, funerals were held with as little delay as possible. More than 20 of the victims of Friday’s disaster on Mount Meron were buried after official identification was completed.

“I only wish that we achieve even a small fraction of your stature in studies and holy devotion,” Avigdor Chayut said, eulogising his 13-year-old son Yedidya, at a funeral in the town of Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv.

The victims died when an annual pilgrimage ended in a stampede by large crowds of ultra-Orthodox faithful at the tomb of a second-century Jewish mystic, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, in northern Israel.

Israel observes day of mourning
Investigators will look into whether there had been police misconduct in the disaster [Amir Cohen/Reuters]

Witnesses described a pyramid of bodies, including several children, in a packed and slippery metal-floored passageway. At least 10 children and teenagers younger than 18 were among the dead.

Israeli media outlets estimated some 100,000 people attended the event, numbers that underscored a relaxing of coronavirus restrictions in a country that sped ahead of others in its vaccination rollout.

Evidence was mounting that this was a disaster waiting to happen as the pilgrimage site has been labelled hazardous by state investigators 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,” Culture Minister Hili 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 was any police misconduct. Police Minister Amir Ochana wrote on Facebook he would go before the cameras after all victims had been identified and buried.

Witnesses have accused police of allowing people into a cordoned-off area even though it was already extremely crowded and not opening the exits on either side quickly enough after people started panicking.

In a 2008 report, the state comptroller, a watchdog government office, warned that conditions at the site, including escape routes, “endanger the public”.

Police and regional government officials said the Mount Meron site was administered by four separate private religious groups, making oversight difficult.

Source: News Agencies