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Accusations are growing in Israel after storms on Mount Meron

MOUNT MERON, Israel – Demand for responsibility after a disaster that left 45 people dead in a sacred site in northern Israel, mounted Saturday as questions swirled about government guilt, religious leaders and police.

The stampede on Mount Meron early Friday during an annual pilgrimage, one of Israel’s worst civil disasters, was for years predicted in warnings from local politicians, journalists and ombudsmen that the place had become a death trap.

On Saturday, Israeli news media reported that senior police officers had accused the ministry of religious services because it had signed security procedures for the event earlier this week.

But as more pilgrims are expected to arrive at Mount Meron after sunset Saturday for another ceremony day, a police spokesman said no further steps had been taken to secure the site since the storm, but that further assessments would be made in the evening. Three police officers at the scene said they had not received any instructions to limit the crowds since the deaths Friday.

Politicians and political commentators accused police and other authorities of playing a role in the tragedy. One of those under control is the Minister of Public Security, Amir Ohana, who oversees the police and rescue services and even participated in the pilgrimage.

Subsequent Israeli governments were accused of keeping a blind eye to security issues on the mountain for more than a decade to avoid alienating the ultra-Orthodox Jews attending the annual celebration, known in Hebrew as a hillula. Seven of the last nine Israeli governing coalitions have relied on the support of ultra-Orthodox parties.

Referring to the Minister of Public Security, Anshel Pfeffer, a political commentator and author, wrote in the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz: “Ohana would not have considered – not even for a moment – restricting arrivals to the hill at Meron and angry ultra-Orthodox politicians, who controls the fate of his master, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. ”

“But neither did his predecessors consider it,” he added.

Sir. Netanyahu is currently struggling to rally a new coalition government that will require the support of two ultra-Orthodox parties to have a chance to form a parliamentary majority.

A senior police officer, Morris Chen, said Friday night that police records had not been affected by political interference.

Mr. Ohana, the public safety minister, wrote on Twitter that the police had done their best.

“There must be and will be a thorough, in-depth and real investigation that will find out how and why this happened,” he later said in a video, adding: “I want from the heart to share in the grief of the families who lost the most precious of all, and to wish a speedy and full recovery to the wounded. ”

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit assigned an independent watchdog investigating allegations of police misconduct in assessing allegations of police negligence in building the disaster.

But on Saturday, Kan, the state television station, said the watchdog was reluctant to oversee the investigation because of the roles played by other officials and bodies in addition to the police.

Hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews visit Mount Meron each spring for the Lag b’Omer festival. It honors the death of a second-century Jewish mystic, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, whose tomb lies on the mountain.

Crowds were banned in 2020, but about 100,000 returned this year after a successful vaccination drive that has allowed much of Israeli life to return to something approaching normalcy.

The event has long called for calls to limit the number of pilgrims allowed to attend. The site is a war of narrow, sloping passages and small, cramped spaces that visitors have often warned are unsuitable for crowds.

The disaster began in the early hours of Friday morning as crowds gathered in a small arena next to the tomb to see the lighting of several ceremonial bonfires. Thousands of people then attempted to travel through a steep, narrow slope that eventually connects via a short flight of stairs to a narrow tunnel.

As they approached the steps to the tunnel, some slipped in front of the metal floor of the slope, witnesses said. It created a sudden blockage that caught hundreds at the bottom. As more and more pilgrims continued to leave the ceremony above, they began to trample on them beneath them.

In 2008 and 2011, the state inspector, a government watchdog, warned that the site’s roads were too narrow to accommodate so many people. The municipal manager said he had tried to close it at least three times.

In 2013, the Chief of Police of Northern Israel warned colleagues about the possibility of a fatal accident. And in 2018, the editor of a major Haredi magazine said it was a recipe for disaster.

On Friday night, a current representative of the state inspector said that the lack of a coherent management structure at the site made it more difficult to enforce a proper security system there.

Various parts of the site fall under four competing private religious institutions, all of which resist state intervention.

There was “a major flaw,” Liora Shimon, deputy director general of the chief, told Kan. “It’s the fact that this site is not under the responsibility of one management.”

A survivor of the tragedy, Yossi Amsalem, 38, said chaotic place management had contributed to the infatuation, but stopped short to assign blame to a particular group. Sir. Amsalem said the passage where the crushing occurred had been used for two-way traffic, which had made it even harder to move.

“The path must be either going up or down,” said Mr Amsalem from a hospital bed in Safed, a town across the valley from Meron. “There should not be this confusion.”

The tragedy drew sympathy and solidarity from across the religious-secular divide in Israel. Health workers said 2,200 Israelis had donated blood to help the wounded on Mount Meron. Flags will be flown with half-staff Sunday at official state buildings as the country observes a day of national mourning.

But the disaster also revived a debate about religious-secular tensions in Israel and about the amount of autonomy to be given to parts of the ultra-Orthodox community that opposes state control.

While many ultra-Orthodox Jews play active roles in Israeli life, some reject the concept of Zionism, while others reject participation in the Israeli military or workforce and resist state intervention in their education system.

Tensions rose sharply during the pandemic as sections of society angered the secular public by ignoring state-enforced coronavirus rules, even though the disease destroyed their ranks to a far greater degree than the rest of the population.

For survivors of the Meron disaster, therefore, falling in love became the latest in a series of battles and setbacks instead of a happy post-pandemic back to normalcy and tradition.

“It’s been such a difficult year,” said Moshe Helfgot, a 22-year-old whose right leg was broken in two places in love. “And now there’s another disaster.”

Irit Pazner Garshowitz and Jonathan Rosen contributed reporting.

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