As Israelis watched for updates on the conditions of a score of survivors of Thursday night’s disastrous stampede on Mount Meron, multiple reports in the Israeli press suggested that government officials yielded to political pressure from religious lawmakers to place no limits on the number of attendees.
An 11-year-old boy, one of the youngest injured, was taken off a ventilator and was fully conscious Saturday morning, the Jerusalem Post reported. He was among 21 victims in the hospital for treatment of injuries sustained when the massive festival turned deadly.
The incident, being called the deadliest peacetime tragedy in Israel’s history, left 45 dead, including six Americans mostly from the New York metro area, and 150 injured. It started when some of the packed crowd of ultra-Orthodox pilgrims moving through a narrow, slippery walkway that ended with a flight of stairs at the mountainside gravesite of a revered rabbi, fell down. Others fell on top of them and what some called an “avalanche” of humans resulted.
The conditions at the site, where safety has been questioned before, are among the lines of inquiry that several investigations will pursue, the Times of Israel reported.
But even more concerning was that cabinet ministers had pressed the police to waive any limits on the number of people attending the Lag B’Omer festival, the paper reported, citing Israel’s Channel 13.
Lifting coronavirus-imposed crowd limits was meant to compensate for last year’s festival being canceled, the Times reported.
Nearly 100,000 people turned out Thursday night, despite warnings about spreading COVID-19. It was the largest public gathering in Israel since the country began lifting coronavirus restrictions last month after a mass vaccination campaign.
The Times, citing another Israeli TV station, Channel 12, said Aryeh Deri, the head of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, sent an official request to Public Security Minister Amir Ohana ahead of the event, saying that “anyone who wants to come should be allowed to do so.”
Ohana, who is responsible for police, approved the request, the paper reported, and no limits on attendees were put in place, despite health officials’ concerns about the virus.
Citing a third news outlet, Kan, the Times said former police officials spoke about “political pressure on police to hold the event at any cost.”
An investigation has been opened by Israel Police into the cause of the accident.
Neither of the investigations has the authority to probe cabinet ministers or other senior officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Times reported. Several prominent Israelis, including a former police commissioner and current Defense and Justice Minister Benny Gantz, have called for a state commission of inquiry, which would have broader powers to investigate the tragedy.