Israel funerals for pilgrimage deaths resume after Sabbath pause

Alexandra Vardi
·4-min read

Israel Saturday evening resumed funerals for victims of a stampede that killed 45 people at a Jewish pilgrimage site, one of the nation's worst peacetime disasters.

Funerals were taking place in several locations including Jerusalem after the end of the Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest, AFP reporters said.

One of the funerals was to be for Yedidya Hayut, a 13-year-old boy whose father was injured in the crush, according to local media reports.

Tens of thousands of people had thronged to Mount Meron in northern Israel and the reputed tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on Thursday to mark the Lag BaOmer holiday and commemorate the second-century Talmudic sage's death.

Most of the victims of the stampede were ultra-Orthodox Jews.

On Friday, the first funerals were held in Jerusalem and the mainly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, where men in traditional long black coats lined the streets to mourn.

Sunday has been declared a national day of mourning.

- Identifying bodies -

In Tel Aviv's Habima square on Saturday evening, people lit candles at a small vigil to honour the victims.

"Once we have finished identifying and burying our dead, I will stand before the cameras and take responsibility" for the events, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana said Saturday.

"I am responsible but responsibility does not mean blame," he added.

The health ministry said late Friday that 32 bodies had been identified and 22 had been released, adding that identifying some of the bodies may require fingerprinting, DNA and dental testing.

It said the identification process would resume Saturday evening.

The pilgrimage was the largest public gathering in Israel since the Covid-19 pandemic erupted last year.

Israel has fully vaccinated more than half of its 9.3 million population against Covid-19, but restrictions remain on large public gatherings.

Officials had warned overcrowding could lead to a spike in infections, and only authorised 10,000 to attend.

Several Israeli media outlets reported that about 100,000 people had attended the pilgrimage, although AFP could not confirm that figure.

In a cruel irony, the Lag BaOmer holiday celebrates the end of a plague that killed thousands of Talmudic students at the time of Rabbi Bar Yochai.

- Conflicting reports -

Before the tragedy, a tightly packed crowd was singing and dancing, praying and lighting candles, in images filmed by AFP.

Men and women were separated, and children also took part.

Yaara Chaimovich told AFP she had been looking forward to showing her children "the beauty" of the holy site, before disaster struck.

"It's like Woodstock," she said, comparing the Lag BaOmer holiday to the US rock festival. "Someone says a prayer, and everyone responds."

There were conflicting reports about what caused the crush, but multiple witnesses said scores of people trampled each other as they moved through a narrow passage.

Some blamed police for blocking access to a ramp that could have allowed pilgrims to escape.

The police "closed it (the ramp). Then, more people arrived, and more and more... and police wouldn't let them exit, so people started to fall on top of each other," Shmuel, 18, told AFP.

There were also indications that pilgrims had tried to burst through iron barricades as the choke point formed.

- 'Heartbreaking' -

The Magen David Adom rescue agency said Saturday that more than 2,200 people, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, had donated blood for the 120 injured, according to a final assessment.

"What happened here is heartbreaking," Netanyahu said Friday after visiting the site.

The disaster was "one of the worst to hit" Israel since its foundation seven decades ago, he added, promising a "thorough, serious and in-depth investigation".

Northern Israel's police chief Shimon Lavi said his officers had done all they could to save lives on a "tragic night", but that he was prepared to assume "overall responsibility".

US President Joe Biden joined world leaders in expressing their condolences, saying "the loss of life among worshippers practising their faith is heartbreaking".

An Israeli foreign ministry spokeswoman told AFP there were four Americans among the dead, while Canada said two of its citizens also died in the crush.

Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas sent prayers "for the victims and hope for the recovery of the injured".

European Council chief Charles Michel wished "strength and courage" to the Israeli people, while Britain's Queen Elizabeth said she was "deeply saddened by news of the disaster".

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