Annual mass celebrations canceled due to Hezbollah threats

Police clash with ultra-Orthodox pilgrims at closed-off holy site in Mount Meron

Video shared by police shows worshipers throwing chairs and crates at cops; Border Police officer removed from duty after being filmed throwing elderly man to the ground

Police push back ultra-Orthodox men who tried to enter the Tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer, at Mount Meron, May 26, 2024. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Police push back ultra-Orthodox men who tried to enter the Tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on the Jewish holiday of Lag B'Omer, at Mount Meron, May 26, 2024. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Clashes broke out over the weekend between police and ultra-Orthodox pilgrims in Mount Meron in the Galilee, after hundreds of worshipers arrived at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in violation of orders deeming the site off limits to the general public during the holiday of Lag B’Omer.

The tomb compound in the north normally attracts some 100,000 people on Lag B’Omer, the day on the Hebrew calendar traditionally pegged as the anniversary of the 2nd-century rabbi’s death.

This year, however, authorities banned the annual pilgrimage due to concerns that worshipers could not be safely sheltered in the event of a rocket attack by Hezbollah.

After pilgrims were told that they could not enter the compound on Saturday night, many attempted to break through police barricades, according to reports in Hebrew media, with some of the men vandalizing the surrounding area.

Videos shared online showed ultra-Orthodox visitors throwing chairs, crates and other objects at police, as well as crowds moving through the compound site, at times running in an apparent attempt to bypass police restrictions on entry.

“At a certain stage, violent riots began, including throwing objects at police officers, as well as resisting by force the police officers’ instructions to disperse from the location,” the Israel Police said in a statement Saturday night.

Ultra-Orthodox men try to reach the Tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on Mount Meron after it was declared a closed military zone, during the Jewish holiday of Lag B’Omer, May 26, 2024. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Clashes resumed on Sunday.

“Beginning in the morning hours, thousands of people arrived at the area of the tomb compound, in the process violating the order of the Home Front Command and the law, confronting police and causing damage to the structures put in place for their protection,” the police said on Sunday.

“Nineteen police officers were taken for medical treatment after iron rods, glass and various objects were thrown at them,” the statement continued, adding that “so far, over 1,000 unauthorized people have been removed from the site and thousands more have been blocked on the roads leading to it.”

In footage circulating online, a member of the Border Police forces can be seen responding to the crowds with force. In one instance, a police officer slaps a man on the face before pulling out his gun and firing in the air.

In another video, a Border Police soldier is seen throwing an elderly Hasidic man to the ground, leaving him motionless. A later photo shared online purports to show the man, bloodied, receiving medical attention.

The Border Police soldier from the latter video has been removed from duty, the Israel Police said, as the matter was being investigated.

“Similarly, the rest of the events will be reviewed and lessons will be learned accordingly,” the statement continued.

“We repeat and emphasize that the steps and particular assessment of the Israel Police are intended for the security and peace of the public,” the statement concluded. “Since the start of the war, dozens of rockets have fallen in the direction of Mount Meron and many of them have fallen on places that, over the years, have usually had thousands of people.”

A law passed last week limited the presence of people at the Meron shrine compound to 30 at any given time, and permitted only three of the traditional annual bonfires, at which participation was capped at 10 approved guests each.

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.

Since October 8, Hezbollah-led forces have attacked Israeli communities and military posts along the border on a near-daily basis, with the group saying it is doing so to support Gaza amid Israel’s war there against the Hamas terror group. Many of the attacks have targeted Mount Meron, which houses a military air traffic control base on its peak.

So far, the skirmishes on the border have resulted in 10 civilian deaths on the Israeli side, as well as the deaths of 14 IDF soldiers and reservists. There have also been several attacks from Syria, without any injuries.

Hezbollah has named 322 members who have been killed by Israel during the ongoing skirmishes, 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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