Israel observed a national day of mourning on Sunday for the 45 men and boys killed in a stampede at a crowded Jewish festival.
The deadly crush on Mount Meron in northern Israel on Friday night has been described as one of the country’s worst peacetime disasters since its establishment in 1948.
Among those killed were at least 16 children and teenagers.
Nine foreign nationals from the United States, Canada, Argentina, and the United Kingdom, as well as two French-Israeli brothers, all minors, were killed.
Thousands of predominantly ultra-Orthodox Jews flocked to the reputed tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai to mourn the second-century Talmudic sage’s death and celebrate the Lag BaOmer holidays.
Benny Gantz, Israel’s defense minister and caretaker justice minister, asked the attorney general on Sunday to look into whether the new transitional government could initiate a state commission of inquiry, the country’s highest level of investigation.
“Only a state commission of inquiry could take into account all elements of the disaster, since it has the broadest authority and tools to make the necessary recommendations,” Gantz said in a letter distributed to reporters.
Netanyahu has promised a thorough investigation, and some legislators have called for a formal inquiry.
Calls for transparency became louder Sunday as the blue-and-white Israeli flag was lowered outside government offices, army bases, and foreign embassies.
“Take Responsibility,” read the headline in Yediot Aharonot daily, listing a range of officials with questions to answer.
Last year, the pilgrimage site was severely restricted due to the coronavirus pandemic.
This year, there were new alerts about viral transmission.
Even though the massive crowd well surpassed the recommended health guidelines of 10,000 people at outdoor events, police did not stop the massive crowd because more than half of Israel’s 9.3 million citizens had been completely inoculated.
Aside from the Covid threats, government officials had previously raised concerns about crowds of up to half a million people at a venue with shaky infrastructure.
“The tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai is not adequately prepared to take in tens and hundreds of thousands of people who arrive for mass events,” Israel’s state comptroller cautioned in a 2008 survey.
The comptroller found that maintenance at the site was limited and that multiple additions had been installed illegally “that were likely to endanger” people inside in a report filed three years later.
“Civilian Diaster, Government Failure,” read a headline in Haaretz newspaper, which separately described the area surrounding Bar Yochai’s tomb as “a death trap”.
In a Facebook post, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, a close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said that he was ready to face an investigation.
“I’m responsible, but responsibility does not mean guilt,” he wrote.
Shimon Lavi, the northern Israel police chief, has also said that he is willing to assume “responsibility.”
Minister of Transport Miri Regev has come under fire for allegedly allowing dozens of public buses to transport people to the site despite safety concerns.
Netanyahu avoided further public comment on the contentious subject during a visit to a hospital treating victims of the tragedy on Sunday.
“We’re praying for them,” he said in a video issued by his office. “Our hearts are with the wounded and we all wish them health,” he said.
‘Hours of trepidation’
The stampede is thought to have begun in the male portion of the gender-divided site as people passed through a narrow passageway that became a deadly choke point.
Dvir Hadani, a 30-year-old who attended a Tel Aviv memorial service, described an agonizing wait while trying to reach his father, a rabbi from Meron, who had been at the site.
Hadani told AFP, “It was nerve-wracking hours before we made contact and I realized he was fine, thank God.”
Rachel, a 28-year-old ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman, said she had stopped attending the Meron pilgrimage eight years ago, but that her parents were present this year and left “an hour before” the stampede.
Some families were able to bury their loved ones before the start of the Sabbath on Friday evening.
The Abu Kabir National Center of Forensic Medicine said all of the dead had been found, so funerals continued late Saturday and Sunday.
On Sunday, Pope Francis joined other world leaders in voicing condolences, expressing solidarity with the Israeli people, and promising his “remembrance in prayer” for the victims and their families.
SOURCE: THE GUARDIAN