Israel observes day of mourning for religious festival stampede victims

·3-min read

Flags were lowered to half-mast on Sunday as Israel held a national day of mourning for 45 men and boys killed in a stampede at a packed ultra-Orthodox Jewish festival amid questions raised about accountability for one of the country's worst civilian disasters.

In accordance with Jewish tradition, funerals were held with as little delay as possible. More than 20 of the victims of Friday's disaster on Mount Meron were buried overnight after official identification was completed.

"I only wish that we achieve even a small fraction of your stature in studies and holy devotion," Avigdor Chayut said, eulogising his 13-year-old son, Yedidya, at a funeral in the town of Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv.

The victims died when an overnight annual pilgrimage by large crowds of ultra-Orthodox faithful to the tomb of a second-century Jewish mystic, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, in northern Israel ended in a stampede.

The deadly crush overnight into Friday at Mount Meron in northern Israel has been described as one of the worst peace time disasters since the nation's founding in 1948.

Some families managed to bury their dead before the Sabbath began on Friday evening.

Funerals continued late Saturday and Sunday, as the Abu Kabir National Center of Forensic Medicine said that all the dead had been identified.

"At around midnight, the identification of all 45 victims of the Meron disaster was completed," said the Center's director, Chen Kugel.

"A disaster of this magnitude requires complex analytical work," he added, stressing the centre had been sensitive towards the needs of the bereaved while maintaining "professionalism".

Questions of accountability

The day of mourning came as Israeli officials are under growing scrutiny for ignoring warnings about safety lapses at the site.

The Mount Meron disaster also heated up the debate over the role of the ultra-Orthodox 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, most of them ultra-Orthodox Jews, after powerful ultra-Orthodox 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 launch an independent commission with wide-ranging powers to investigate. The body would have the authority to probe senior politicians and decision-makers, going beyond a Justice Ministry inquiry now underway that is looking into possible misconduct by police officers at the site.

The increasingly acrimonious blame game comes during a political power struggle between Netanyahu and former allies-turned-foes 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 ultra-Orthodox political allies would feature prominently in any Netanyahu-led government.

Nerve-wracking hours

The stampede in the male section of the gender-divided site is believed to have started as people moved through a narrow passageway that became a deadly choke-point.

Dvir Hadani, a 30-year-old who attended a memorial service in Tel Aviv, recounted an excruciating wait as he tried to contact his father, a rabbi in Meron, who had been at the site.

"They were nerve-wracking hours until we made contact and I realised he was fine, thank God," Hadani told AFP.

Rachel, a 28-year-old ultra-Orthodox Jewish women, said she had stopped going to the Meron pilgrimage eight years ago but her parents were there this year and left "an hour before" the stampede.

Leading newspapers on Sunday demanded accountability for the tragedy, at a site with a history of safety concerns.

"Take Responsibility," read the headline in the Yediot Aharanot daily, listing a range of officials with questions to answer.

Haaretz newspaper on Sunday called the area surrounding Bar Yochai's tomb "a death trap".

Netanyahu on Friday pledged a full investigation to avoid a repeat of the Meron tragedy, while Israel's chief Ashkenazi rabbi, David Lau, suggested Sunday that the pilgrimage be spread over a week to avoid overcrowding.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)