Israel buries dead after Jewish pilgrim stampede kills 45

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JERUSALEM, April 30, 2021 (BSS/AFP) – Israel on Friday was burying
victims of a stampede at a Jewish pilgrimage site that killed at least
45 people, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised an
investigation into one of the nation’s “worst disasters”.

The nighttime carnage struck after pilgrims thronged to Meron at the
site of the reputed tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second-century
Talmudic sage, where mainly ultra-Orthodox Jews, or haredim, mark the
Lag BaOmer holiday.

The health ministry put the toll at 45 dead. The Magen David Adom
rescue agency said an estimated 150 had been injured.

With families anxious to bury loved ones before the Shabbat break,
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”.

Among the victims was 38-year Elazar Goldberg, whose father called
on God to protect his children as his son was laid to rest in
Jerusalem.

The pilgrimage was the largest public gathering in Israel since the
Covid-19 pandemic erupted last year.

– ‘Heartbreaking’ –

Officials had warned overcrowding could fuel viral spread, and only
authorised 10,000 to attend the tomb compound.

Israeli media outlets said 90,000 massed at the site, a figure that
could not be immediately confirmed from official sources.

There were conflicting reports about what caused the deadly crush,
but multiple witnesses said scores of people trampled each other as
they moved through a narrow passage.

“What happened here is heartbreaking. There were people crushed to
death, including children,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said
following his visit.

The “Mount Meron disaster” was “one of the worst to hit” Israel
since its foundation seven decades ago, he added, promising a
“thorough, serious and in-depth investigation in order to ensure that
such a disaster does not recur”.

He declared that Sunday would be a national day of mourning.

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.

In a cruel irony, the BaOmer holiday celebrates the end of a plague
that killed thousands of Talmudic students at the time of Rabbi Bar
Yochai.

– Choke-point –

Some witnesses blamed police for not allowing people to exit through
a ramp that could have allowed them to escape the crush.

The police “closed it (the ramp). Then, more people arrived, and
more and more… and police wouldn’t let them exit, so people started
to fall on top of each other”, Shmuel, 18, told AFP.

There were also indications that pilgrims sought to burst through
iron sheet barricades as the choke-point formed.

“It took me back to the period of (Palestinian militant) bombings.
There was chaos, people trying to save themselves as they crushed each
other,” Dov Maisel of the United Hatzala rescue services told army
radio.

Northern Israel’s police chief Shimon Lavi told AFP his officers had
done all they could to save lives on a “tragic night”, helping to
ferry those injured to hospital.

Lavi told reporters he was prepared to assume “overall responsibility”.

Military and rescue service helicopters evacuated the wounded across
the country.

– Identifying dead –

Scenes from Meron hours after the accident showed an ultra-Orthodox
Jewish crowd in distress, the men in long black coats and wearing
black hats, and debris scattered across the ground.

Survivors lit candles for the victims while others prayed. A row of
bodies covered in plastic bags lay on the ground.

Relatives of those affected were flocking to the National Center of
Forensic Medicine in Tel Aviv, where victims were being identified.

Some voiced frustrations to reporters over delays as they pushed to
claim bodies before Shabbat.

Israel has fully vaccinated more than half of its 9.3 million
population against the coronavirus, but restrictions on massive public
gatherings remain in place to stem the spread of the virus.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews have throughout the pandemic shown resistance
towards health and safety measures mandated by the government.

President Reuven Rivlin received condolence messages including from
Australia, the Vatican, King Abdullah II of neighbouring Jordan and
from across Europe.

“The loss of life among worshippers practising their faith is
heartbreaking,” said US President Joe Biden in a statement, adding
that Washington was seeking to confirm reports that American citizens
were killed or wounded in the stampede.

Britain’s Queen Elizabeth said in a message of condolence she was
“deeply saddened by news of the disaster”.