Israel's Lag BaOmer celebration reformed a year after 45 pilgrims died in crush

The Mount Meron accident last year was Israel's worst civilian disaster

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Israel's emergency services are bracing for thousands of Jewish worshippers to mark the Lag BaOmer holiday on Wednesday, a year after 45 pilgrims were crushed to death during the celebrations.

At the Mount Meron site in northern Israel, paramedics in white shirts and ushers in neon colours are waiting for the worshippers.

“We prepare for every event to happen, we are ready,” said Yossi Halabi, from the Magen David Adom (MDA) emergency services provider.

Each year, the sacred site is filled with Jewish pilgrims who travel from across Israel and around the world to celebrate Lag BaOmer, which is marked with bonfires, prayers and dancing.

An estimated 100,000 people attended last year, when 45 people were crushed to death while trying to leave a ceremony through a narrow passageway.

“We saw a lot of dead people, lying one above the other, at this height,” said Mr Halabi, holding his hand out at shoulder level.

The accident was Israel’s worst civilian disaster and sparked an inquiry and an overhaul of how the event is run.

Authorities have limited the site’s capacity to 16,000, with pilgrims ordered to spend no more than four hours at the site.

Reform to prevent another tragedy

As emergency services prepared for the holiday to get under way on Wednesday night, police roadblocks were set up across the surrounding area. A helicopter buzzed overhead, while the force said it would also use drones for surveillance of Mount Meron.

“The government of Israel has made a considerable investment in order to facilitate an extensive and safe participation,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Wednesday.

“I ask the public to act in accordance with the directives that have been published and to go only with a ticket so that we can have a safe celebration,” he added.

According to the new rules, pilgrims must have a timed ticket and take a shuttle bus to the holy hillside.

Anticipating opposition to the restrictions, the police said officers will respond with a “firm hand” to anyone trying to disrupt the event.

At the entrance to Mount Meron, new barriers have been set up which leave a central channel for the emergency services to reach worshippers in distress.

The location where the deadly crush occurred, on concrete steps between high barriers, has been sealed off.

For Mr Halabi, who heads MDA’s first responders unit across Israel, the landscape of the site is a key challenge for rescuers.

“You can’t change the topography, so if something serious happens you don’t have a lot of options to evacuate or to bring a lot of ambulances here,” he said.

Paramedics can use smaller vehicles to get through small paths and have set up treatment centres across the site, as well as a field hospital in case of mass casualties.

Some worshippers were already gathered at the site before the Lag BaOmer celebrations, praying near the tomb of 2nd-century Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai.

In addition to the annual events, which continue on Thursday, a separate area has been set up for a memorial service to those who died last year.

Many of the first responders on the scene last year have returned to Mount Meron this year.

“They want to be here again. It’s important for them, because they saved lives last year,” said Mr Halabi.

Updated: May 19, 2022, 5:04 AM