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Tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, 2016
|Date||30 April 2021|
|Time||c. 00:50 IDT (UTC+03:00)|
|Location||Tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, Meron, Israel|
|Cause||Under investigation; includes over-crowding in Lag BaOmer celebration|
|Participants||Haredi and Orthodox Jews|
On 30 April 2021, at about 00:50 IDT, a deadly crowd crush occurred in Meron, Israel, during the annual pilgrimage to the tomb of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai on the Jewish holiday of Lag BaOmer, at which it was estimated that 100,000 people were in attendance. Forty-five men and boys at the sex-segregated event were killed, and about 150 injured, dozens of them critically, making it the deadliest civil disaster in the history of Israel. The crush occurred after celebrants poured out of one section of the mountainside compound, down a passageway with a sloping metal floor wet with spilled drinks, leading to a staircase continuing down. Witnesses say that people tripped and slipped near the top of the stairs. Those behind, unaware of the blockage ahead, continued. The people further down were trampled over and crushed, unable to breathe due to the pressure.
The potential for such a calamity, given the tens of thousands of celebrants, had been reported by the state comptroller and the police chief. The local council had tried several times to close the site. Reuters cited Israeli media outlets in reporting that, as a precaution against the COVID-19 pandemic in the country, bonfire areas had been partitioned off, which may have created unrecognised choke-points.
Many Jews, mostly Haredi, traditionally convene for Lag BaOmer at the grave of the 2nd-century Tannaitic rabbi Shimon bar Yochai at Mount Meron to dance and make bonfires. Men and boys attend in different sections than women and girls. Haaretz called it Israel's "biggest religious festival of the year".
In 2020, the country restricted the pilgrimage due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The Cabinet of Israel permitted the 2021 pilgrimage and waived the COVID-19 cap of 1,000 attendees as part of an agreement with Ministry of Religious Services officials which required attendees to be vaccinated against COVID-19. The event was the largest to be held in Israel since the start of the pandemic in 2020.
Additionally, for the first time in 13 years, the Mount Meron holiday took place on a Thursday and Friday, the significance being that Thursday night is seen as comparable to Saturday night in oher parts of the world, with Friday being Israel's day of rest, as opposed to Sunday. Moreover, since celebrations are not permitted on Shabbat, the Jewish sabbath, which starts at sunset every Friday, the event was limited to a window of 14 hours, ending at sunset on Friday. Three bonfires were lit at the same time, each by an Admor, with approximately 3,000 people at each bonfire. The number of people permitted to the complex was limited to 10,000,[discuss] but the organisers estimated that approximately 100,000 were at the site—others estimate 50,000—which was larger than the restricted crowd in 2020 but smaller than the hundreds of thousands of people in previous years. Israeli media reported that, as a precaution against the COVID-19 pandemic, bonfire areas had been partitioned off, which may have created unrecognised choke-points.
The crush was not the first time pilgrims at Mount Meron had been killed in an accident: on 15 May 1911, eleven people were killed when a crowd of about 10,000 filled the compound and a railing of a nearby balcony collapsed. About 100 people fell from a height of roughly 25 feet (8 m) to the ground below, the deaths of seven were determined at the scene and of four others in the days following the incident. There were 40 injured.
A 2008 report of the site by the State Comptroller of Israel concluded that the site is not adequate for the number of annual visitors. A 2016 police report warned of issues with infrastructure and crowd control.
In 2018, a journalist reported that the "exit passageway creates a bottleneck and causes risk of people being crushed". He wrote that a larger exit way should be constructed, in order to avoid a similiar incident from 2015, when a man was trampled to death and dozens were injured from overcrowding.
Four Haredi groups oversee different part of the compond, with the Toldot Aharon running the part where the incident occured. According to witness accounts, the event was held in a fenced area described as "overly confining". At the time, the restricted area was filled with as many as 20,000 people. After the lighting ceremony, and as dancing began, hundreds of people left. The exit path was a narrow, steep slope with a smooth metal floor. There was no police or rescue services managing the flow into the walkway. With nothing to hold onto, the crowd leaned on each other. The path then leads to steps before a narrow tunnel. Close to 01:00, some participants began to slip and fall, either on the metal slope or the stone steps, and were trampled over and unable to breathe due to being crushed by those behind. As the crowd moved to the gates, a crush started. The crowd broke open side barriers of the path, creating rigged up exits for some to break free.
According to one witness, security blocked the passageway and kept people from exiting. As people were starting to lose consciousness as the crush prevented them from breathing, police finally opened the gates to allow people through. The crush ensued as a large number of people tried to exit at the same time through the narrow passageway. Other witnesses said the path was slippery from spilled water and juice. Another witness recalled "hundreds of people screaming 'I can’t breathe'".
As medics were trying to reach the injured, former Israeli Chief Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau remained on stage urging calm and reciting psalms for the injured. Three hundred rescue buses were prevented from entering the site due to blocked access roads. Six helicopters were flown in to evacuate the injured. Cell phone service crashed due to the number of people trying to get in contact with their families.
In the crush, 45 people were killed and about 150 more were injured. The dead included six Americans, two Canadians, an Argentine and a Briton. The Institute of Forensic Medicine at Abu Kabir completed the identification of all 45 victims by 2 May 2021.
The crush is currently under investigation. Israeli police said the crush was unpreventable and that the location was being inspected for structural flaws, but the scenario of people slipping on stairs was out of police control. Police Northern commander Shimon Lavi said that he bears full responsibility. Police released a statement that the passage was authorized by all authorities and that they had understood the event would be abnormally large. Mordechai Halperin, ex-mayor of moshav Meron (the site is located witin moshav Meron), said that the passage which narrowed an escape route was constructed without any building permits and against his strenuous objections. Many commentators put forward the Haredi community's extensive autonomy within Israel's governance as a major contributing factor to the catastrophe.
State Comptroller of Israel Matanyahu Englman announced on 3 May an audit of the events leading to the disaster, which would also recommend policy for future mass events. It had not been decided whether to set up a state commission of inquiry. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised a thorough state investigation, but did not specify any details.
The crush was the deadliest civilian disaster to occur in Israeli history, surpassing the 2010 Mount Carmel forest fire which killed 44. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a "great tragedy" and said that everyone was praying for the victims. Netanyahu declared 2 May 2021 a national day of mourning. Several cultural activities were cancelled. President Reuven Rivlin offered his condolences to the victims.
Israeli Administration of Border Crossings, Population and Immigration had declared that a "fast route" to enter Israel had been defined to allow families of the injured and deceased to enter Israel.
On 3 May 2021, the Israeli authority for sacred locations had been given a decree requiring a permit from the Israeli police commissioner to hold any celebration. Prior to the decree only a permit from the regional police chief was required.