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Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared a national day of mourning for Sunday over the disaster that took place at a massive Lag B’Omer gathering at Mt. Meron early Friday.

Dozens of people were crushed to death in a stampede that broke out in the early hours on Friday morning where over 100,000 pilgrims, mostly Haredi Jews, had gathered to honor Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd-century sage and mystic who is buried on Mt. Meron. At least 45 people were confirmed dead and 150 people were injured, with dozens in serious condition and several in critical.

Visiting the scene on Friday morning, Netanyahu said, “The disaster at Mount Meron is one of the most difficult tragedy’s to strike Israel. We will conduct a thorough investigation to make sure this type of tragedy never happens again.

“Sunday will be a national day of mourning. Let us all come together and pray for the victims and their families and for the wounded’s speedy recovery,” he said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits at the scene on Mt. Meron, in northern Israel on April 30, 2021. Photo by David Cohen/Flash90

It remains unclear the specific cause of the disaster, Magen David Adom said the tragedy was likely caused by overcrowding at a narrow pass at the prayer compound.

A police official said dozens taking part in the service had “slipped” on a metal floor, falling on those around them and causing a crushing domino effect.

Organizers said by late Thursday over 100,000 people were at the site, and another 100,000 had been expected to arrive by Friday morning.

Police were deployed at the compound by the thousands and shut down the event and were evacuating all the participants. Roadblocks were also set up to prevent people from arriving at the scene.

Magen David Adom rescue service Director-General Eli Bin said the wounded were rushed to the Ziv Hospital in Safed, the Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya, Rambam Medical Center in Haifa, Poriya Hospital in Tiberias, and Hadassah Ein Kerem Hospital in Jerusalem.

The event was one of the first major religious gatherings to be held after the coronavirus restrictions were lifted. Last year’s gathering at Mt. Meron had been canceled due to the pandemic.

Northern Police District Commander Maj. Gen. Shimon Lavie told local media that “as district chief, I bear full responsibility, for better or for worse. We are currently gathering information and evidence to get to the truth about what happened. I’m willing to face any investigation,” Israel Hayom reported.

Still, criticism grew in the immediate aftermath, with some saying the tragedy could have been prevented as the narrow, metal-floored walkway has for years been known a potential bottleneck on the compound.

Senior police officers told Israel Hayom the Mount Meron disaster was “a fiasco, start to finish.”

“When it comes to an event in a specific area; when every police officer in the district knows every inch of the place, and there are specific orders on how to handle things, this cannot be the result,” a senior police officer said.

A former top Northern District officer refused to absolve rabbis from partial responsibility for the events.

“The real bosses on the ground at Mount Meron are the Haredi leaders. They have the final say on who gets in or not. That’s insane. The power of each Hassidic dynasty is reflected in how things take place on the ground and the police tend to seek compromises with them.

“This is a case of failed management,” he continued. “They [the police] should never have allowed so many people into the compound. There are things that have to be verified: were the plans for this event approved [by police brass]? What was the expected capacity? You have to stop letting people in when it’s met. Were emergency exits marked? Was the scene under control? All of this has to be reviewed,” he said.

On Friday, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit ordered the Police Internal Investigations Department to review the incident for any criminal negligence on the part of police officers at the scene. The decision followed eyewitness accounts that accused police of blocking a key exit route at the bottom of the walkway that had become a death trap.

Israel Hayom contributed to this report. 

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