Dozens of ultra-Orthodox worshipers broke through police barricades to enter the tomb site of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on Mount Meron on Thursday afternoon, nearly trampling the people inside, in a chaotic capstone to the Lag B’Omer holiday after police had successfully managed to restrict crowd sizes from Wednesday evening.
Footage showed the throngs of pilgrims pushing through barricades to enter the room in which bar Yochai’s tomb is located as those inside push them back and yell for them to stop — exactly the type of situation police had strived to prevent following a last year’s gathering when 45 people were crushed to death in the deadliest civil disaster in Israeli history.
Additional footage from the scene showed cops clashing with pilgrims attempting to push into the compound. The intruders were later seen celebrating after apparently breaking through the cordon to the site’s central courtyard in a densely packed crowd.
The riots occurred just ahead of a state memorial service planned to commemorate victims of last year’s deadly crush. Some bereaved family members trying to enter the site were spit on or had objects hurtled at them, Hebrew media reported.
Fifteen people were arrested, and two officers were lightly injured, the Kan public broadcaster reported, adding that police had rescued a number of children from the crush of the crowds.
As a result of the breach by the violent mob, authorities announced that they were ending the festivities early, stranding thousands who had purchased tickets to enter the site on Thursday evening.
In a statement announcing the decision, Deputy Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana accused “groups of extremist fanatics” of intentionally sabotaging the festivities. He expressed backing for the actions of police, which were meant “to protect lives.”
The memorial ceremony later went ahead as planned. Tzvi Tessler, who was appointed to coordinate the Meron pilgrimage after the tragedy, apologized to families for the way the day went.
“I’m sorry that a group of people decided to intentionally and cravenly destroy what we built, and succeeded,” he said, according to Ynet.
“We’ll need to figure out with the police what happened. We’ll see if perhaps we needed to be better at certain things together with the police.
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New restrictions had been put in place ahead of Lag B’Omer celebrations following last year’s tragedy, which were largely followed until Thursday afternoon.
The police said the barricades that the men tore down were there to separate men from women at the holy site and that a number of women and children who were inside at the time needed to be quickly pulled out to avoid being injured.
Video footage from the scene shows the men violently breaking down the metal barriers, kicking them and occasionally throwing pieces of metal.
“Officers rescued the women and children from the memorial and are working to prevent a stampede and a risk to life,” police said.
“At this stage, all bus service to the mountain has been halted. The public is asked not to try to come to the site,” police added.
Public Security Minister Omer Barlev issued a statement blasting the “groups of ultra-Orthodox extremists who behaved violently and savagely” at Meron and offering his support for the decision by authorities to end the event early.
The Behadrei Haredim news site reported that police had subsequently removed some barricades and stopped attempting to control the throngs pushing to enter the site, instead letting them flow in unrestrictedly.
Unlike years past, when hundreds of thousands would pack the mountainside shrine, police this year restricted entry to 16,000 people at any given time, angering some pilgrims.
Approximately 8,000 policemen had been deployed to the area around the tomb Wednesday to enforce new safety rules.
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Order was generally maintained on Wednesday and Thursday, though some clashes with police were reported.
Inside the compound, crowds were significantly smaller than in years past. “It’s empty inside,” complained one pilgrim, who said he had traveled four hours from Jerusalem, but only was allowed inside the tomb site for 30 seconds.
Authorities instituted several safety measures meant to avoid a repeat of last year, capping crowd sizes, requiring tickets and changing the way the event is organized.
The government also fixed stairs and other infrastructure around the compound to boost safety.