A partial list of victims shows that at least 10 boys and teenagers under the age of 18 were among 45 ultra-Orthodox Jews killed in a race at a religious festival in northern Israel
JERUSALEM – At least 10 children and teenagers under the age of 18 were among 45 ultra-Orthodox Jews killed in a riot at a religious festival in northern Israel, according to a partial list of names published on Saturday as the identification of victims in the disaster Israel’s deadliest civilian civilian.
Four Americans, a Canadian and an Argentine were also among the dead. Two families lost two children each. The youngest victim was nine years old.
Meanwhile, calls were getting louder on Saturday for the establishment of an official commission of inquiry, in part to assess the responsibility of senior politicians and decision-makers for allowing the meeting to take place in mass, despite repeated warnings to the over the years about security lapses.
The Friday morning stampede interrupted the annual Lag BaOmer festival on Mount Meron in Israel. The festival drew about 100,000 people in the biggest gathering so far this year, as Israel’s successful vaccination campaign has allowed the country to step out of restrictions on coronavirus.
When large numbers of people began to abandon one of the festival’s events, they crowded into a narrow tunnel-shaped passageway that descended and ended in a series of steps. The floor became slippery with the spillage of water and juice, according to witnesses. While some in the crowd slipped, those behind them fell on top of those on the floor.
Veteran paramedic Yossi Halabi told Israeli TV Channel 12 on Saturday that he “found a wall of bodies” after he was alerted to the disaster at his nearby post. He said it took about 40 minutes for him and his rescue companions to evacuate the dead and wounded from the chaos.
He said it was “one of the worst, if not the worst incident” he has seen in 30 years at work.
Israeli media said 32 of the 45 victims were identified before the Jewish Sabbath began at sunset on Friday. Of these, 22 were put to rest before Saturday. The identification of the remaining victims and the burials would be resumed after Saturday’s sunset.
Sixteen people remained hospitalized, including three in serious condition.
Lag BaOmer is very popular with Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community to honor Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd century sage and mystic who is believed to be buried there. The crowds light fires, dance and eat large festive meals as part of the celebrations. Across the country, even in secular areas, smaller groups gather in parks and forests for barbecues and bonfires.
Experts have long warned that Mount Meron celebrations are poised for disaster due to overcrowding, big fires and hot weather. In a 2008 report, the state controller, a government oversight body, warned conditions at the site, including escape routes, “put the public in danger”.
The Ministry of Justice said it was opening an investigation into possible criminal conduct by police officers. Witnesses complained that police barricades prevented people from leaving properly.
However, there were growing demands on Saturday, including from retired police commanders, for an official commission of inquiry that could also review the decisions of the political leadership.
According to the guidelines of the Ministry of Health, public meetings continue to be limited to a maximum of 500 people. But Israeli media said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assured ultra-Orthodox leaders that the celebrations would take place, despite objections from public health officials. Netanyahu’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Netanyahu has long relied on powerful ultra-Orthodox parties as allies. He will need their support if he wants to keep alive the faint hopes of remaining in power after the inconclusive elections in March, the fourth in just two years. The coming week is expected to be decisive for its hitherto unsuccessful efforts to form a coalition government with right-wing and ultra-orthodox parties.
Netanyahu was heavily criticized last year for allowing ultra-Orthodox communities to disregard safety guidelines by opening schools and synagogues and holding mass funerals. Ultra-Orthodox communities are among the most affected by COVID-19.