Friday, April 30, 2021

Police officials blast incident as "a fiasco, start to finish."


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday announced that Sunday would be a "day of national mourning" over the disaster that stuck the traditional Lag B'Omer gathering at Mount Meron overnight.

Dozens of people were crushed to death in a stampede that broke out in the early hours of Friday morning at the prayer compound, where tens of thousands of mostly ultra-Orthodox worshippers had gathered. At least 45 people were confirmed dead and 150 people were injured, with dozens in serious condition and several defined as critical.

Visiting the scene later Friday morning, the prime minister said, "The disaster at Mount Meron is one of the most difficult tragedy's to strike Israel. We will conduct a thorough investigation to make sure this type of tragedy never happens again.

"Sunday will be a national day of mourning. Let us all come together and pray for the victims and their families and for the wounded's speedy recovery," he said.

The incident happened at around 1 a.m. but the specific cause of the disaster at the main celebration honoring Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd-century sage and mystic who is buried there, was not immediately clear.

Initial reports said a stand had collapsed at one of the services where thousands of people were taking part. However, Magen David Adom said the tragedy was caused by overcrowding at a narrow pass at the prayer compound.

A police official said dozens of participants in the service had "slipped" on a metal floor, falling on those around them and causing a crushing domino effect.

At around midnight Thursday, organizers had estimated that some 100,000 people were at the site, with an additional 100,000 expected to arrive by Friday morning.

Police, deployed at the compound by the thousands, shut down the event and were evacuating all the participants. Roadblocks were set up to prevent people from arriving at the scene.

The Israeli military was called in to assist in the rescue efforts, sending medics, helicopters, and specialized search and rescue teams. Efforts were compounded by the fact the mobile telephone services in the area had collapsed.

The site was so densely populated, that search and rescue authorities said there were struggling to evacuate those trapped.

Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai arrived at the scene to supervise the forces personally. Police and rescue teams evacuated tens of thousands of people from the scene through the compound's parking lots.

Israel Railway began operating trains from northern station Carmiel to Tel Aviv to help clear crowds from the scene.

Magen David Adom rescue service Director-General Eli Bin said the wounded were rushed to the Ziv Hospital in Safed, the Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya, Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, Poriya Hospital in Tiberias, and Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem.

President Reuven Rivlin called it a "heartbreaking tragedy."



Shas leader Interior Minister Aryeh Deri said he was "heartbroken over the disaster at Meron. I pray for the wounded's speedy recovery and send my support to the rescue services at the scene."

Opposition Leader Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid tweeted, "I've been anxiously following the terrible disaster at Meron. Israel as a whole is praying for the victims' recovery. This is a sad, difficult night."

During his visit to the scene, Netanyahu noted, "There were heartbreaking scenes here. People who were crushed to death, including children."

He further urged the public not to spread rumors about the identity of the dead and praised first responders "whose fast work prevented a much larger disaster."

Upon arriving at the scene, Netanyahu was greeted with boos from bystanders still in the area, who called out, "Bibi's responsible, a criminal." Some of the protesters threw bottles in his direction, local media reported.

The event was the first huge religious gathering to be held legally since Israel lifted nearly all restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic. The country has seen cases plummet since launching one of the world's most successful vaccination campaigns late last year.

Health authorities had nevertheless warned against holding such a large gathering.

By mid-morning, the police and emergency serviced had finished clearing the scene. The bodies of those crushed in the stampede were transported to the National Center of Forensic Medicine in central Israel for identification.

Northern Police District Commander Maj. Gen. Shimon Lavie told local media that "as district chief, I bear full responsibility, for better or for worse. We are currently gathering information and evidence to get to the truth about what happened. I'm willing to face any investigation."

Still, criticism grew in the immediate aftermath, with some saying the tragedy could have been prevented as the narrow, metal-floored walkway has for years been known a potential bottleneck on the compound.

Haredi journalist Arye Erlich tweeted in 2018, "The narrow exit path that leads from the Toldos Aharon Hassidic dynasty lighting ceremony creates a human bottleneck and terrible pushing, at levels of a real threat of being crushed."

enior police officers told Israel Hayom the Mount Meron disaster was "a fiasco, start to finish."

"When it comes to an event in a specific area; when every police officer in the district knows every inch of the place, and there are specific orders on how to handle things, this cannot be the result," a senior police officer said.

A former top Northern District officer refused to absolve rabbis from partial responsibility for the events.

"The real bosses on the ground at Mount Meron are the Haredi leaders. They have the final say on who gets in or not. That's insane. The power of each Hassidic dynesty is reflected in how things take place on the ground and the police tend to seek compromises with them.

"This is a case of failed management," he continued. "They [the police] should never have allowed so many people into the compound. There are things that have to be verified: were the plans for this event approved [by police brass]? What was the expected capacity? You have to stop letting people in when it's met. Were emergency exits marked? Was the scene under control? All of this has to be reviewed," he said.

Around mid-morning Friday, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit ordered the Police Internal Investigations Department to review the incident for any criminal negligence on the part of police officers at the scene. The decision followed eyewitness accounts that accused police of blocking a key exit route at the bottom of the walkway that had become a death trap.

A first responder praying at the scene of the Mount Meron stampede, April 30, 2021 (JINI/Gil Eliyahu)

This is the first disaster of this scope to happen at the Mount Meron compound in 110 years.

In 1911, a roof railing collapsed and 100 people dropped 8 meters (26 feet) down, on the crowd standing beneath them. Eleven were killed and 40 were wounded. Available records show that at the time, 10,000 people had attended the festival.



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