Israel marks day of mourning for 45 victims of Meron stampede

Israel on Sunday was set to mark a national day of mourning over the Mount Meron stampede that killed 45 people, including over a dozen children and teenagers, in the country’s deadliest civilian disaster.

Flags will be lowered to half-mast and ceremonies are expected at army bases. A cabinet meeting scheduled for Sunday was canceled.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared the day of mourning after visiting Mount Meron on Friday. “There were heartbreaking scenes here. People who were crushed to death, including children,” Netanyahu said in a video from the scene.

With 45 dead and dozens injured, the disaster in the early hours of Friday is believed to be the worst peacetime tragedy in Israel’s history, surpassing the death toll of 44 from the 2010 Mount Carmel forest fire.

Top row (L-R): Menahem Zakbah, Simcha Diskind, Shraga Gestetner, Shimon Matalon; 2nd row (L-R): Yosef David Elhadad, Moshe Mordechai Elhadad, Moshe Natan Neta Englander, Yehoshua Englander; 3rd row (L-R): Haim Seler, Yedidia Hayut, Daniel (Donny) Morris, Nahman Kirshbaum; 4th row (L-R): Abraham Daniel Ambon; Yedidya Fogel, Yisrael Anakvah, Moshe Ben Shalom

The victims included at least a dozen children and teens, including two sets of brothers, as well as young fathers and rabbis. They included at least 10 foreign citizens, among them six Americans, a British national, two Canadians and an Argentinian.

More than 100,000 people were attending the annual Lag B’Omer gathering on Thursday in the northern Galilee, which includes visits to the gravesite Bar Yochai and massive bonfires on the mountainside. A bonfire lighting ceremony for the Toldot Aharon Hasidic sect was being held at the pilgrimage area, close to Bar Yochai’s tomb.

Crowd in the moments before the Mt Meron tragedy, April 30, 2021 (Screen grab)

As the dense crowds began to exit, a narrow, sloping walkway on the exit route became immensely congested, people slipped on the metal floor and others fell on them, precipitating a stampede and fatal crushing, exacerbated by a reported police barrier at the bottom of the incline.

On Saturday night, the Abu Kabir Forensic Institute in Tel Aviv said it has identified 42 of the 45 bodies from the deadly stampede and expects to finish identifying the remaining victims in the coming hours. It also said 34 bodies have been released for burial.

Many of the victims were buried on Friday and Saturday night.

Israeli rescue forces after a crush killed dozens during the celebrations of the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer on Mt. Meron, in northern Israel on April 30, 2021 (David Cohen/Flash90)

Sixteen people remained hospitalized on Saturday after the deadly stampede, with a number of them in critical or serious condition. The condition of several people hurt in the crush improved over the weekend. A 52-year-old man who was seriously injured returned to full consciousness at Rambam Medical Center in Haifa. At the same hospital, the condition of an 11-year-old boy who was seriously injured also improved.

As the initial shock and horror over the deadly crush began to subside, focus started to turn on Friday toward the matter of who was to blame for the packed conditions at the site and the security dangers. Two state comptroller reports highlighting that the Mount Meron site was radically unprepared for the huge numbers attending the annual festivities, in 2008 and 2011, were ignored, as was a 2016 police report that sounded similar warnings.

The site, the second most visited religious site in Israel after the Western Wall, appears to have become a kind of extraterritorial zone, multiple reports indicated Friday, with separate ultra-Orthodox sects organizing their own events, and their own access arrangements, no overall supervision, and police routinely pressured by government ministers and ultra-Orthodox politicians not to object.

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews celebrate during a Lag B’Omer gathering on Mount Meron in northern Israel on April 29, 2021 (David Cohen/Flash90)

Questions will likely be directed at political, civil and law enforcement officials involved in planning, approving and securing the event, amid talk of a potential state commission of inquiry to thoroughly investigate the disaster.

Public Security Minister Amir Ohana said Saturday night he bears overall responsibility, “but responsibility does not mean blame.”

Facing criticism for staying largely silent since the disaster, Ohana, who oversees police, wrote in a Facebook post that he planned to face the public once the dead were buried.

“I am ready to face any probe and answer any question,” Ohana said.

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