The vast crowds of ultra-Orthodox pilgrims that converge on Lag B’Omer each year at Mount Meron, around the burial site of the second-century mystic Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, had been urged this year to stay away.
Israel has been leading the world in its COVID-19 vaccination drive, but as the country’s chief public health official, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, warned on Wednesday evening, “the danger of contagion” at mass public gatherings remains acute.
Over five million Israelis have been vaccinated — almost 60 percent — but that still leaves four million who have not, most of them under 16-year-olds who are not eligible. With the so-called Indian variant of the virus causing concern, Alroy-Preis and other health officials feared the closely packed event, a massive public order challenge at the best of times, could cause a fresh uptick in COVID cases.
In a blistering television interview, Alroy-Preis protested that a framework negotiated “by all the sides” to impose “special regulations” at Mount Meron and all events for Lag B’Omer — when celebratory bonfire ceremonies have become a national norm — had not been imposed “because no one would take responsibility for enforcement.”
As it turned out, the fears expressed by Alroy-Preis and other health officials regarding the huge crowds at Mount Meron proved heartbreakingly prescient — though not for the reasons they had anticipated.
Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox pilgrims, overwhelmingly male, including many young children, gathered through the evening and into the night for the hours of festivities at the northern Galilee mountain site — numbers that far exceeded a reported police plan to cap attendance at 10,000, and that overwhelmed the 5,000 uniformed officers deployed to secure the event.
And at around 1 a.m. Friday morning, as large numbers of those participants made their way along a metal-floored walkway on the exit route, a disaster unfolded. The crowds were pulsing, the floor was slippery, police officers apparently blocked the exit from the narrow walkway for a time.
“There’s an aluminum-floored walkway, then a stairway, and then there was a barrier,” said Eli Pollack, the head of the United Hatzalah emergency rescue service. “It was a death trap.”
The crush grew heavier, people fell and were trapped. “People didn’t realize what was happening until it was too late,” the ultra-Orthodox journalist Yaakov Eichler, told Israel’s Channel 12 news hours later.
By the time they did realize, at least 45 people were dead, and dozens more were injured, many of them seriously.
The tragedy has echoes of all too many mass-crowd disasters at sports grounds, and particularly, perhaps, the 96 fatalities at the Hillsborough soccer stadium in Sheffield, northern England, in 1989. There, fatally incompetent policing was at the root of a sequence of events that saw more and more fans directed via a sloping walkway into an overcrowded stand, and crushed to death as the soccer continued on the other side of the metal fencing that penned them in. Here, more and more celebrants crammed into a sloping, slippery walkway, with an exit apparently temporarily blocked by police and no other means of escape.
In striking contrast to the implicated British police chiefs, some of whom were only brought to justice decades later after innumerable campaigns by the families of the Hillsborough victims, here, the head of the police Northern Command, Shimon Lavi, took “overall responsibility” within hours of the tragedy. In an interview hours earlier at the site, Lavi had promised that the police “have not compromised on security,” and said the imperative was to ensure that “everyone gets home safely.” Now, as the victims were being evacuated, he highlighted the ongoing “complicated effort” to get to the truth of what had gone so terribly wrong, and stressed that his officers had saved lives as the horrors continued, pushing through the panicked crowds to rescue people who were trapped.
Plainly, responsibility extends beyond the local area police chief. As journalist Eichler noted, the annual Mount Meron pilgrimage was “absolutely” a disaster waiting to happen. Indeed it was, he said, “a miracle that it didn’t happen every year.”
This year, though attendance was far, far greater than the authorities had hoped, it was significantly lower than in many previous years, when hundreds of thousands gathered at the mountain.
On the specific level, the narrow walkway is now said to have been a known bottleneck. But the wider issue with the event, said Eichler, is that overall responsibility for the site has long been contested between religious authorities and state authorities, handicapping efforts to ensure that the necessary infrastructure is in place to cope with crowds at a site second only to the Western Wall in terms of its popularity. Israel’s state comptroller had specified in 2008 that Mount Meron “is not appropriately prepared for mass events,” Channel 12 news noted on Friday. A 2016 police report also warned of looming disaster.
According to a number of reporters covering the ultra-Orthodox community, moreover, the oversight vacuum also meant that all sorts of other parties, with all manner of interests — including not only religious but commercial — were pressing hard in recent days to make sure the event went ahead, and with large numbers of participants.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who visited the scene of the tragedy late on Friday morning, promised “a thorough investigation.” If so, it will need to examine responsibility all the way up the chain of command in the police, a hierarchy that was hampered for more than two years by the absence of a police commissioner until the appointment of Kobi Shabtai in January.
It will also need to look into the words and deeds of relevant government ministers, Knesset members and community leaders — few of whom supported the health officials’ COVID-inspired pleas for the crowds to stay away.
Terribly, even when the death toll from the crush is final, the full dimensions of the Mount Meron disaster may not yet be known. It was the spread of the virus that worried health officials like Alroy-Preis, and it will be several days before we know if those fears are confirmed.
What is already being described as Israel’s worst-ever peacetime disaster, in other words, may still be unfolding.
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