Israel observes mourning day for victims of religious festivals

Flags were lowered to half-mast on Sunday as Israel held a national day of mourning for 45 men and boys killed in a storm at a packed ultra-Orthodox Jewish festival amid questions raised over one of the country’s worst civil 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 just wish we could achieve even a small fraction of your adult in studies and sacred devotion,” said Avigdor Chayut, praising his 13-year-old son, Yedidya, at a funeral in the city of Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv.

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

The deadly Friday night crush at Mount Meron in northern Israel has been described as one of the worst peacetime disasters since the nation’s founding in 1948.

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

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

“At 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 complicated analytical work,” he added, stressing that the center had been sensitive to the needs of mourners while maintaining “professionalism”.

Issues of liability

The day of mourning came when Israeli officials are under increasing scrutiny for ignoring warnings about security breaches at the site.

The Mount Meron disaster also heated up the debate about the role of the ultra-Orthodox minority in Israel and the refusal of some of its leaders to recognize state authority.

Politicians resist calls to state commission of inquiry

The festival had drawn about 100,000 people, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, after powerful ultra-Orthodox politicians reportedly pressured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others to cancel their attendance.

On Sunday, a group of retired police commissioners called on the prime minister to set up an independent commission with extensive powers to investigate. The body would have the power to investigate leading politicians and decision-makers and go beyond an ongoing investigation by the Ministry of Justice, which is investigating possible misconduct by police on the spot.

The increasingly criminal guilt comes during a political power struggle between Netanyahu and former ally-turned-enemies who were willing to overthrow him. After a decisive election in March, Netanyahu’s chances of forming a ruling coalition and remaining in power seem to be waning. His ultra-Orthodox political allies would play a prominent role in any Netanyahu-led government.

Nerve-breaking hours

The congestion in the male part of the gender-shared site is believed to have begun when people moved through a narrow corridor that became a deadly choke point.

Dvir Hadani, a 30-year-old who attended a memorial service in Tel Aviv, told of an unpleasant wait when he tried to contact his father, a rabbi in Meron, who had been at the scene.

“They were nervous for hours until we got in touch and I realized he was fine, thank goodness,” Hadani told AFP.

Rachel, a 28-year-old ultra-Orthodox Jewish woman, said she had stopped going on the Meron pilgrimage eight years ago, but her parents were there this year and left “an hour before” the storm.

Leading newspapers on Sunday demanded responsibility for the tragedy, in a place with a history of security problems.

“Take responsibility”, reads the headline in Yediot Aharanot daily and shows a number of officials with questions to answer.

The Haaretz newspaper on Sunday called the area around Bar Yochai’s grave “a death trap”.

On Friday, Netanyahu promised a full investigation to avoid a repeat of the Meron tragedy, while Israeli Chief Ashkenazi rabbi David Lau on Sunday suggested that the pilgrimage be spread over a week to avoid overcrowding.

( Jowhar with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

This website uses cookies to improve your experience. We'll assume you're ok with this, but you can opt-out if you wish. Accept Read More