Israel orders inquiry into deadly Mount Meron stampede

The stampede in April killed 45 people at a Jewish pilgrimage site long deemed hazardous by the authorities.

Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews had packed a site at Mount Meron in northern Israel on April 30 [File: Reuters]

Israel’s new government has approved an official inquiry into a stampede in April which killed 45 people and injured dozens at a Jewish pilgrimage site long deemed dangerously crowded by authorities.

Though it was the country’s worst civilian disaster, a full-scale investigation into the Mount Meron deaths lagged under the previous government amid feuding between its ultra-Orthodox Jewish and opposition politicians.

“The responsibility for learning the lessons and preventing the next disaster is on our shoulders,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Sunday at his first cabinet meeting.

“A commission cannot bring back those who have perished, but the government can do everything to prevent unnecessary loss of life in the future.”

A cabinet statement said the inquiry’s findings would help safeguard other mass-attendance events in Israel, which has sites sacred to Islam and Christianity as well as to Judaism.

Israel stampede
The authorities deemed the Mount Meron site hazardous years ago [File: Reuters]

Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews thronged to the Galilee hillside tomb of second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on April 30 for the annual Lag B’Omer festival that includes all-night prayer, mystical songs and dance.

The numbers this year were lower than in previous years but still beyond those permitted by COVID-19 curbs.

Some Israelis questioned if the former government under Benjamin Netanyahu and police were reluctant to further limit the crowd size because of pressure from influential ultra-Orthodox leaders.

During the ceremony, part of the crowd surged into a narrow tunnel and the 45 men and boys were asphyxiated or trampled.

Police are already carrying out a probe and Israel’s government watchdog, which years ago deemed the Mount Meron site hazardous, has announced its own investigation, though it cannot bring criminal charges.

Netanyahu had promised a thorough investigation, but his cabinet, which included ultra-Orthodox Jewish ministers, never took formal action and major hostilities between Israel and Palestinian groups in Gaza broke out less than two weeks later.

Bennett is himself religiously observant but his broad coalition does not include any ultra-Orthodox parties. In his cabinet remarks, he said Meron draws Jews “from all sectors”, an allusion to denominations other than the ultra-Orthodox.

Defence Minister Benny Gantz, who pushed for the inquiry, said its findings would carry a “heavy weight” and could not be ignored.

The commission of inquiry, headed by a judge, will have a budget of six million shekels ($1.8m), the government said.

Source: News Agencies