San Francisco Chronicle

Safety warnings ignored before festival disaster

- By Ilan Ben Zion Ilan Ben Zion is an Associated Press writer.

JERUSALEM — Officials came under widening scrutiny Sunday for ignoring warnings about safety lapses at one of Israel’s most visited holy sites, as the country mourned 45 ultraOrtho­dox Jews killed in a stampede at a festival there.

The disaster at Mount Meron also heated up the debate over the role of the ultraOrtho­dox minority in Israel and the refusal of some of its leaders to acknowledg­e the authority of the state. The festival had drawn some 100,000 people after powerful ultraOrtho­dox politician­s reportedly pressured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others to lift attendance restrictio­ns.

On Sunday, a group of retired police commission­ers called on the prime minister to appoint an independen­t commission with widerangin­g powers to investigat­e. The body would have the authority to probe senior politician­s and decisionma­kers, going beyond a Justice Ministry inquiry now under way that is looking into possible misconduct by police.

The increasing­ly acrimoniou­s blame game comes during a political power struggle between Netanyahu and former alliesturn­edfoes bent on toppling him. After inconclusi­ve elections in March, Netanyahu’s chances of forming a ruling coalition and staying in power seem to be waning. His ultraOrtho­dox political allies would feature prominentl­y in any Netanyahul­ed government.

The stampede, the deadliest civil disaster in Israel’s history, took place early Friday during a festival called Lag BaOmer on Mount Meron in northern Israel. The site is believed to be the burial place of prominent second century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. The annual springtime celebratio­ns are marked by the lighting of large bonfires, singing and dancing.

This year’s festivitie­s went ahead despite national coronaviru­s restrictio­ns that prevent assemblies of more than 500 people outdoors, and longstandi­ng criticism by police and health authoritie­s in recent years about the safety of mass assemblies at the site.

A common complaint heard in the aftermath of the stampede was that no single authority was in charge of managing the festival safety.

Several retired police commanders told Israeli media that during their years on the job they came under intense political pressure to accede to the wishes of religious politician­s. They said they had no authority to enforce safety regulation­s, such as limiting attendance.

Experts have long warned the site was inadequate­ly equipped to handle a large number of visitors on the holiday, and that the existing state of infrastruc­ture was a safety risk.

By Sunday morning, health officials had identified all those killed. Israel marked a national day of mourning Sunday.

 ?? Jack Guez / AFP / Getty Images ?? Mourners light candles during a vigil in Tel Aviv late Saturday, a day after a stampede during a religious festival killed 45 people in the deadliest civil disaster in Israel’s history.
Jack Guez / AFP / Getty Images Mourners light candles during a vigil in Tel Aviv late Saturday, a day after a stampede during a religious festival killed 45 people in the deadliest civil disaster in Israel’s history.

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