Authorities close Mount Meron ahead of Lag B’Omer over Hezbollah rocket threat

City of Tiberias also blocks access to Rabbi Akiva gravesite fearing too many pilgrims will throng shrine over holiday

Smoke rises after rockets fired from Lebanon hit an open area in Mount Meron, northern Israel, May 15, 2024. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Smoke rises after rockets fired from Lebanon hit an open area in Mount Meron, northern Israel, May 15, 2024. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The mountainside gravesite of second-century rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in northern Israel was ordered largely shut Tuesday as Israeli authorities sought to stop thousands of religious Jews from attending an annual pilgrimage there in close range of Hezbollah missiles fired from southern Lebanon.

An emergency law passed Tuesday by the Knesset shuttered the shrine on Mount Meron for all but a handful of approved attendees over the Lag B’Omer holiday early next week, an event that normally attracts more than 100,000 revelers and is considered the world’s largest Jewish pilgrimage.

The site was also declared a closed military zone by Israel Defense Forces Homefront Command chief Rafi Milo, blocking public access through Monday, May 27, a day after the holiday.

Located some 10 kilometers (6 miles) from the border with Lebanon, Meron and surrounding areas have been repeatedly targeted by rockets and other weapons launched by Hezbollah since October 8, when the Iran-backed group began attacking northern Israel on a near-daily basis in support of fellow terror organization Hamas in Gaza.

On May 15, Hezbollah fired 60 rockets at Meron, which houses a military air traffic control base on its peak. Some of the rockets were intercepted while others caused “minor damage,” according to the IDF, which reported no injuries as a result of the attack.

The law passed Tuesday limits the presence of people at the Meron shrine compound to 30 at any given time.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews celebrate the holiday of Lag Baomer, in Meron, on May 19, 2022. (David Cohen/Flash90)

The law permits three of the traditional annual bonfires, with participation capped at 10 approved guests each. One fire will be permitted at the Bar Yochai tomb, and two more will take place at the nearby Bnei Akiva yeshiva.

“One needs to understand what led us to this situation,” said Jewish Heritage Minister Meir Porush, who will determine who can attend the event. “Unlimited access would mean tens of thousands of people arriving and a terrible catastrophe could happen if the place is targeted with rockets. We must not take such risks with human lives.”

Separately, Tiberias Mayor Yossi Naba’a ordered on Tuesday that the tomb of first-century sage Rabbi Akiva in the Sea of Galilee city also be closed through Monday, fearing the site would not be able to handle the tens of thousands of pilgrims who planned to go there instead of Meron, according to reports in Hebrew media.

Rabbi Akiva's tomb (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)
Rabbi Akiva’s tomb (photo credit: Shmuel Bar-Am)

Crowd sizes at the annual Mount Meron event have been a major concern since 2021, when 45 people were killed in a crush as they traversed a slippery walkway at the shrine during Lag B’Omer.

The holiday, which falls on Sunday, May 26, this year, is traditionally recognized as the anniversary of Bar Yochai’s death, and is customarily celebrated with large bonfires and other outdoor events. Jewish tradition also associates the day with the end of a plague affecting students of Rabbi Akiva in the first century CE.

Since October 8, Hezbollah-led forces have attacked Israeli communities and military posts in northern Israel on a near-daily basis.

A worshiper at Mount Meron, March 6, 2024 (David Cohen/Flash90)

So far, the skirmishes on the border have resulted in the death of 14 IDF soldiers and reservists and 10 civilians. There have also been several attacks from Syria, without any injuries.

Hezbollah has named 309 members who have been killed by Israel in skirmishes and counterattacks, mostly in Lebanon but some also in Syria. In Lebanon, another 61 operatives from other terror groups, a Lebanese soldier, and dozens of civilians have been killed.

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