Israel in mourning as questions mount over religious festival disaster

Flags were lowered to half staff on Sunday as Israel mourned 45 people killed while celebrating the Lag BaOmer holiday

Emergency workers hug as they react at the site where dozens were crushed to death in a stampede at a religious festival, as the country observes a day of mourning, at Mount Meron, Israel May 2, 2021. REUTERS/Amir Cohen
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Israel held a day of national mourning on Sunday as the country marked its worst peacetime disaster, while questions mounted over who bears responsibility for the crush that killed 45 people at a religious festival.

"These are very difficult days," President Rivlin Reuven said in a meeting with the forensics team that identified those killed on Mount Meron in northern Israel.

“It is hard to grasp the dimensions of the tragedy, the loss of life of children, young people, bridegrooms and fathers, who lost their lives in such a cruel way.”

Israeli flags on public buildings were lowered to half staff on Sunday, while events such as sports fixtures were cancelled.

An estimated 100,000 ultra-Orthodox Jews had gathered on the mountain on Thursday night to celebrate Lag BaOmer, an annual holiday marked by bonfires and dancing.

According to witnesses, the crush happened when some worshippers slipped in a narrow passageway and others fell on top of them in the tightly-packed corridor.

Panic ensued as people hemmed in by metal fencing tried to escape, while the emergency services struggled to evacuate the area.

"It was a disaster," paramedic Elhanan Mamo told The National. "People who walked a few minutes ago, just collapsed into themselves."

Among the dead were 10 children, according to lists of victims published by Israeli media, while about 150 people were injured.

Former police commissioners on Sunday pressed the government to open an independent inquiry into the disaster, amid widespread reports there have long been safety fears over the event.

The Lag BaOmer celebration was the largest event held since Israel relaxed rules imposed to curb coronavirus, with the numbers far exceeding the current health ministry guidelines.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday promised a “thorough, serious and in-depth investigation in order to ensure that such a disaster does not recur”.

The premier has repeatedly been accused of capitulating to the demands of ultra-Orthodox politicians, such as allowing 10,000 mourners to attend a funeral in January when Israel was under lockdown.

Mr Netanyahu is currently trying to form a coalition government, following a fourth inconclusive election in two years, and is relying on the backing of ultra-Orthodox parties to stay in power.

The aftermath of the disaster has been shaped by religious observance, with some families having to wait until late on Saturday for their relatives to be identified.

This delay came after Israel’s chief rabbi ruled that pathologists should not work during the Jewish holy day.

Just a dozen bodies were released by Friday afternoon, prompting hasty funerals in Jerusalem and elsewhere, as families rushed to bury their relatives before the Sabbath started at sundown.

Six Americans were among those killed, the US embassy said, while Canada announced two of its citizens died.

In a call to Mr Netanyahu, US President Joe Biden offered his "profound condolences" following the "heartbreaking" loss of life.

Israel said it also received a letter from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, as well as messages of sympathy from countries including the UAE.