Police arrested a group of men and women on Tuesday suspected of planning to sabotage the preparations being made for Wednesday night’s Lag B’Omer celebrations on Mount Meron in northern Israel, the police said.
The suspects were in possession of four bags “full of wirecutters, utility knives, hammers, eggs filled with paint, and gloves that are suspected of having been meant to be used to vandalize the electrical system for the communications equipment, loudspeakers and screens that had been set up,” police said in a statement.
Crowbars, spray paint and other tools were also confiscated, according to police.
Israeli authorities have significantly changed the format of the annual celebrations that are held on the Lag B’Omer holiday at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on Mount Meron after 45 men and boys were crushed to death last year in the worst civil disaster in Israel’s history.
These changes have been met by fierce opposition among some Haredi Israelis, including some influential rabbis and community leaders.
The suspects were arrested near the town of Kadarim in northern Israel as they were allegedly making their way to Meron in a minibus.
Police said some of the suspects belonged to “an extreme Haredi sect,” without specifying which.
“Besides threatening the event and causing a disturbance to the revelers, damage to the facility was liable to cause a real threat to people at the site if they were to damage the command-and-control infrastructure of the event,” police said in a statement.
Lag B’Omer marks the 33rd day of the seven-week period between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot, and is the day on which Bar Yochai is believed to have died. Bar Yochai called on his followers to celebrate the anniversary of his death, a tradition known as Yom Hillula, or a day of festivity.
At Mount Meron, where Bar Yochai is buried, the holiday is traditionally marked with ceremonial lightings of massive torches by various Hasidic sects throughout the night, from evening to dawn, with music and dancing and general revelry. The two dozen or so torch-lightings are held in six compounds surrounding the tomb, large areas with bleachers, a stage, sound system and a giant metal torch.
At last year’s event on Mount Meron, 45 men and boys were crushed to death and over 150 were injured as thousands of people descended a far too small, illegally constructed exit ramp, known as Dov Bridge. As throngs of people made their way down the ramp and the poorly built stairs at the end of it — and a smaller number tried going up — a massive bottleneck formed, sparking a sudden mass panic, which resulted in the unprecedented body count.
In light of last year’s tragedy, the event this year will be far smaller than previous years in terms of both the number of participants and the size of the ceremony.
In place of multiple torch-lightings throughout the night, this year there will be only one lighting at a central location, preventing mass flows of participants between the different compounds.
Only 16,000 people will be allowed in the Bar Yochai tomb complex at any given time — compared to tens of thousands in previous years.
To further control the crowds, the police are banning entry to the compound on foot or by car. The only way to enter the site will be on buses arranged by the Transportation Ministry, or shuttles from a parking lot.
More than 8,000 police officers will be deployed to the Mount Meron area on Wednesday night and Thursday morning to ensure that these new rules are implemented. In addition to the officers, the police will use drones, a helicopter, all-terrain vehicles, horses and motorbikes.
Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Kohn, leader of the fiercely anti-Zionist Toldot Aharon sect whose compound was the site of last year’s disaster, encouraged his adherents to go without buying tickets and said that even those who have tickets should try to get in without showing them.
“By what right can the authorities limit our ascendance to Mount Meron? We do not have to cooperate with them,” Kohn said, according to Behadrei Haredim, a Haredi news site.
Northern District police chief Shimon Lavi on Monday said the police were closely monitoring the situation and “will not allow rioters and those who want to disturb the peace ruin the revelry on Mount Meron.”