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Thousands turn out for heavily regulated anniversary memorial for Baba Sali

12 held after clashing with police when denied entrance; initial ban on religious pilgrimage event was reversed, with police allowing public to enter graveside area for 7 minutes

Jews attend events commemorating the death of the Baba Sali at his grave compound in Netivot amid heavy police presence on January 5, 2022. (Flash90)
Jews attend events commemorating the death of the Baba Sali at his grave compound in Netivot amid heavy police presence on January 5, 2022. (Flash90)

Hundreds of police turned out Wednesday evening to secure the smaller-than-expected crowds at the grave of the Baba Sali in the southern town of Netivot on the anniversary of his death.

Police officers, Border Police officers and volunteers were deployed en masse to ensure safety at the event, months after a deadly crush at Mount Meron during a religious festival killed 45 people in Israel’s worst civilian disaster in history.

Some people who were refused entry clashed with police and security guards at the entrance. Police said 12 people were arrested for disturbing the peace and attacking officers.

Police had originally issued an order last week banning the event from taking place due to overcrowding concerns, but that decision was later reversed amid political pressure, and fears of an angry protest.

Instead, police highly regulated entrance, banning anyone but family of the late Moroccan kabbalist from entering the compound surrounding his grave. Members of the public were allowed to enter the area surrounding the compound only if they showed a vaccinated “Green Pass” or recent negative COVID test, and were only allowed to remain in the closed-off area for a total of seven minutes.

Loudspeakers could be heard telling the crowd to “please pray and leave,” and reminding them that they were only allowed to stay inside for seven minutes.

Thousands of visitors were reported to attend the event this year, but the crowd was said to be smaller than in years past, as Israel set a new record for daily COVID cases on Wednesday.

Traditionally, tens of thousands of religious pilgrims attend the memorial each year. The Baba Sali was considered a man of miracles by many Jews around the world. His followers include a wide range of Jews from all sorts of religious backgrounds, and his grave is one of Israel’s most visited Jewish holy sites.

Jews attend events commemorating the death of the Baba Sali at his grave compound in Netivot on January 5, 2022. (Flash90)

Police appeared to be putting greater emphasis on safety protocols following the tragedy at Mount Meron in May, when 45 people were crushed to death during the annual Lag B’Omer gathering.

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