Police End Celebrations at Meron Pilgrimage Site After Thousands Break Into Tomb

A year after a deadly stampede left 45 dead, police manage to maintain sporadic clashes and prevent casualties at the Meron pilgrimage site

Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
Sam Sokol
Ultra Orthodox Jews dance around a bonfire during Lag Ba'Omer celebrations on Mount Meron, northern Israel, Thursday.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews dance around a bonfire during Lag Ba'Omer celebrations on Mount Meron, northern Israel, Thursday.Credit: Ariel Schalit /AP
Samuel Sokol is a freelance journalist based in Jerusalem. He was previously a correspondent at the Jerusalem Post and has reported for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, the Israel Broadcasting Authority and the Times of Israel. He is the author of Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews.
Sam Sokol

Police stopped celebrations Thursday at Mount Meron after a large crowd of ultra-Orthodox Jews broke into the holy burial site, ending events at the site of Iast year's deadly stampede which saw 45 people crushed to death.

As of Thursday evening, seventeen participants were arrested in the clashes.

Every year, tens of thousands of devout Jews from across the country flock to the northern Israeli burial site of second-century Mishnaic sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai to mark the holiday of Lag Ba’omer with singing, dancing and multiple bonfires.

While most participants were peaceful, recently imposed restrictions following last year's stampede sparked anger among hardline members of the ultra-Orthodox community, several dozen of whom hurled stones and other objects at law enforcement officers on Thursday after a suspect was detained for throwing a rock, the police said in a statement.

By Thursday afternoon, a large crowd of pilgrims who had been waiting in the sun for hours broke down a fence and entered the tomb. In a statement, the police said that “dozens of extremists” had breached the barriers between the men’s and women’s sections and “began vandalizing the tomb compound,” endangering women and children who had to be rescued by officers. Dozens of pilgrims also broke into areas closed off by police following last year's disaster.

In response, police shut off bus access to the site.

Officials decided that the memorial service for those killed in the stampede last year will take place at 8:30 P.M., after debating whether to cancel the event in light of clashes.

The new rules, which capped attendance at 16,000 people, significantly lower than the 70,000 who have come out in recent years, came after dozens of people lost their lives last April when 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.

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 site, but that nothing was done to address the risks, even as the number of people joining the festivities continued to grow year after year.

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.

In anticipation of this year’s event, police deployed 8,000 police officers and Border Police, helicopters and other means of crowd control. In contrast with previous years, when different Hasidic sects built around 25 different bonfires at the site, this year only one main bonfire was permitted.

While the changes were welcomed by some, segments of the ultra-Orthodox community were vehemently opposed to the new limits and many prominent rabbis were reported calling on their followers to ascend Mount Meron without permits.

The commander of the police's Northern District, Maj. Gen. Shimon Lavi, warned earlier this week that police had been monitoring extremist groups protesting this year's arrangements, and that these groups may cause disturbances at the event.

"The Israel Police takes the behavior of law-breaking extremists very seriously, trying in every way possible to sabotage the revelry,” the police said. "Damage to infrastructure, beyond damaging the event and causing mental anguish to the celebrants, may pose a real danger to those staying on the site in the event that the command and control infrastructure for the event is damaged."

On Tuesday and Wednesday, the police stopped a number of minibuses heading to the site whose passengers were found carrying hammers, eggs, spray paint, box cutters and other gear.

The police said they suspected they were “intended to be used to sabotage” infrastructure and which may have posed “a real danger” to pilgrims.

Videos posted online showed police clashing with ultra-Orthodox men who arrived without permits ahead of the celebrations on Wednesday morning. Other videos, uploaded in the evening, showed police attempting to hold back crowds while another, which could not be verified by Haaretz, showed a young ultra-Orthodox man with facial bruises and a torn shirt who alleged that he was attacked by a policeman.

The police did not immediately reply to a Haaretz inquiry regarding the extent of the clashes with pilgrims nor did they reveal how many people had been detained following the clashes.

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