'More Cops Than People': Thousands Gather at Mount Meron a Year After Stampede

Last April, 45 people died in Israel's worst civilian disaster after Lag Ba'omer revelers slipped, causing a panicked stampede in a narrow passageway

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Worshippers at Mount Meron on Wednesday.
Ultra-Orthodox worshippers at Mount Meron, on Wednesday.Credit: Rami Shllush

Thousands of religious Jews from across Israel arrived at Mount Meron in an annual pilgrimage for the holiday of Lag Ba'omer Wednesday evening, a year after a crowd crush at the site killed 45 in Israel's worst civilian disaster.

This year, only about 16,000 people are permitted to be on the mountain at any given time, compared to about 70,000 in previous years.

Thousands of police and event ushers have been stationed at Mount Meron since noon. The celebrations will begin at 8 P.M. and will be followed by the lighting of a single bonfire, the only one to be held this year on the mountain, attended by only 4,000 people.

Lag Ba'omer celebrations include dancing, singing and usually the lighting of many bonfires, and take place at the burial site of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, the second-century Mishnaic sage.

Ultra-Orthodox worshippers at Mount Meron, on Wednesday.Credit: Rami Shllush

"I just hope everything goes smoothly," says Zion, a participant in the celebrations. "Every year at a time like this there is no place to move, and there are more cops here than people. It's a little sad, but it's clear why. People are afraid, people are afraid to go up [the mountain]. Just so there will be no work for the security or medical workers," he said.

"But there are a lot of changes for the better here, one of them is that at this time the whole place is usually full of litter and now everything is clean," he added.

Nachman Levy, who distributes water to the revelers, said: "It feels like Tisha B'Av here, this is not how Rabbi Shimon's revelation looks. Last year was a disaster, so instead of expanding the area for celebrations, it was decided to reduce it."

Avraham Levy, who also distributes drinks, said: "Very sad. Even on a normal day there is more traffic on the mountain."

Ultra-Orthodox Jews pray at the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai at Mount Meron in northern Israel, Wednesday.Credit: JALAA MAREY / AFP

Last April, 45 people died and some 150 were injured after revelers slipped on steps, making many others fall on top of each other and triggering a panicked stampede in a narrow passageway. The path had been illegally constructed by the Toldos Aharon Hasidic sect in order to enforce gender separation.

Three weeks ago, the safety adviser to the agency heading this year's events resigned after his warning that the site's infrastructure was unequipped to handle the 16,000 visitors this year was ignored.

According to the celebration guidelines, each visitor will be allowed to stay on the mountain for a maximum of four hours.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews pray at the gravesite of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai at Mount Meron in northern Israel, Wednesday.Credit: JALAA MAREY / AFP

In order to prevent people from staying longer, the distribution of food to visitors, as was customary until now as part of the "guest tents" around the complex every year, has been forbidden.

So far, about 130,000 tickets have been sold, and tomorrow it will be decided whether to sell more tickets for Friday or open the mountain to the public entirely.

Entrance to the area is only possible via a bus ticket to the site from the Transportation Ministry. Participants receive bracelets in colors indicating entrance time, and will leave on buses departing from the parking lots frequently.

In addition, this year it was also forbidden to stay in the family complexes, which were previously set up near the tomb and in the forest around Moshav Meron and included caravans and tents.

A ceremony is expected to take place tomorrow evening in memory of the 45 victims of last year's disaster.

In the afternoon, police announced that they had arrested three young men who were on their way to Meron with cutters, Japanese knives and spray paint, who allegedly intended to sabotage the infrastructure set up on the mountain ahead of the celebration.

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