A year after 45 people were crushed to death in Israel’s worst-ever civilian catastrophe, the government and law enforcement are preparing for this year's pilgrimage to the grave of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai at the foothills of Mount Meron – the first since last year's disaster.
On Wednesday evening, tens of thousands of devout Jews from across the country will flock to the northern Israeli burial site of the second-century Mishnaic sage, where the Lag Ba’omer holiday is celebrated annually with singing, dancing and multiple bonfires.
Dozens of people lost their lives last April after visitors began slipping on a metal ramp passing through a narrow, overcrowded passageway at the site, triggering a panicked stampede. The passageway had been illegally constructed by the Toldos Aharon Hasidic sect in order to enforce gender separation.
The pilgrimage site is usually packed beyond capacity, and a number of Hasidic groups share responsibility for managing events, with none commanding complete oversight.
Soon after the tragedy Shlomo Levy, the former head of the area's local government, told the Ynet news site that prior efforts to address safety issues at the site had been rebuffed.
“It’s impossible to move a stone there without running into this or that Hasdic group, and if you do move something there, half an hour later, you get a phone call from Jerusalem,” he said.
Years of neglect
Following the stampede, the government established a high-level commission of inquiry, over the course of which high-ranking officials repeatedly blamed others involved in organizing and securing the event.
The committee learned that many officials had long expressed concern about the chaos at the site but that nothing was done to address those risks, even as the number of people joining the festivities continued to grow year after year.
The commission, whose formation was opposed by the ultra-Orthodox parties, recommended a shake-up in how the annual event is run, including instituting a cap on how many participants can take part at any given time. The commission noted that the area can safely accommodate about 20,000 people. When the tragedy occurred, there were 70,000 people at the site.
Since then, the Toldos Aharon complex where the disaster occurred has been closed off, and the Finance Ministry demolished the so-called “death corridor” along with 63 other illegal structures in and around the tomb complex.
After last year's disaster, Rabbi Dovid Kohn, the leader of the Toldos Aharon Hasidic sect responsible for the illegal walkway, said the tragedy was a "divine decree beyond human comprehension," according to Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) media.
Kohn also appeared to call into question the necessity of an investigation, saying, "We can’t understand Hashem’s [God’s] decrees, but our job isn’t to figure it out. Our job is to awaken and strengthen ourselves [spiritually].”
- Israel Ramps Up Mount Meron Security After Last Year's Deadly Stampede
- Families of Meron Stampede Victims Sue Israel for Millions
- Mount Meron Disaster: Inquiry Finds Intimidation, Ignorance and Finger-pointing
Shimon Elhadad, whose brothers Yosef and Moshe died in Meron, told Haaretz last year that he hoped the new commission would lead to the government investing the necessary money and planning to ensure that the annual pilgrimage can continue safely.
“The main thing is that next year we can hold the event as we’re used to doing it and not have to close it down, but do it better than ever,” he said last June.
Israeli police have deployed 8,000 police officers and Border Police, helicopters and other means of crowd control in preparation for Lag Ba'omer and, based on recommendations from the government investigation, strict limits have been put in place to curb the number of people on the mount at any given time.
That limit has been set at just 16,000 people, with each person limited to a total of four hours at the site. Pilgrims will be allowed entry only by presenting a bus ticket, issued by the Transportation Ministry, that will indicate a specific time slot.
Each participant will receive a bracelet in a color that represents their designated time of entry, and buses will run on a frequent schedule to remove people from the site.
In contrast with previous years, when different Hasidic sects built around 25 different bonfires at the site, this year only one main bonfire will be permitted.
Senior police officers warned Monday that, despite the restriction on the number of participants, tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of people are likely to come to Meron, either by sneaking in through side entrances or by using forged tickets. Participants are also likely to remain at the site for longer than the permitted four hours, they said.
And this week one prominent Haredi rabbi exhorted a large crowd to ascend Mount Meron without permits. The rabbi, affiliated with the Toldot Aharon Hasidic movement, gave the speech in Yiddish in Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Geula neighborhood.
The commander of the police's Northern District, Maj. Gen. Shimon Lavi, said police have been monitoring extremist groups protesting this year's arrangements, and that these groups may cause disturbances at the events.
Despite the changes, the safety consultant to the agency running this year’s pilgrimage resigned three weeks ago. He has alleged that his warnings about the site, and the continued inability to handle the number of people expected to show up for this year's event, have been ignored – and that decisions about the festivities were being influenced by outside interests and political considerations.
Aaron Rabinowitz contributed to this report.