Rescue workers take a dead body into an ambulance after dozens were killed in a crush at a religious festival in Mount Meron on April 30, 2021 – Getty/Amir Levy
Over the past thirteen years, three reports were published in Israel which identified the annual religious festival as a public health risk, raising questions as to whether police failed to ensure the venue was safe.
A report by Israel’s state comptroller in 2008 said there had been a “systemic failure” to protect the Mount Meron site and worshippers, while a subsequent report in 2011 said it was not safe for mass gatherings.
“The existing situation should not be allowed to continue, including the neglected structure where [certain] groups do as they wish, to the abandonment of a site of great importance, both nationally and religiously,” the report said, according to the Times of Israel.
And in 2016 a police report said that the “writing was on the wall” in terms of the overcrowding risks at the annual Mount Meron festival, which was attended by 100,000 ultra-orthodox Jews this year.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said the disaster was “one of the worst to befall the State of Israel.”
Israeli police have launched an internal investigation into security measures at the festival, which may be followed by a state inquiry, according to Israeli media reports.
Speaking to the Telegraph at the scene of the stampede, some ultra-orthodox Jews claimed police had exacerbated the situation by setting up a barrier that stopped people from escaping the area.
It came as a report by the Israeli broadcaster Channel 13 said police had faced intense pressure from religious leaders to let the event run without Covid-19 restrictions.
The report, which cited sources close to the investigation into the stampede, also said the Israeli cabinet had urged police to let huge crowds gather at Mount Meron, to compensate for the event being cancelled last year due to the pandemic.
It is understood that the stampede began when a group of worshippers slipped on a staircase, sending waves of people into a narrow tunnel where many were crushed to death.
A British student from Manchester is thought to be among the victims, it emerged on Saturday. The 24-year-old, who was said to be studying at a yeshiva in Jerusalem, was identified as one of the victims of the crush by the newspaper Jewish News, which cited sources in Manchester’s ultra-orthodox community.
Around half of the victims’ remains were laid to rest on Friday before sundown after post mortem examinations, with the rest due to be buried on Saturday evening in accordance with Jewish custom.
At least a dozen of the victims were children, among them Moshe Englander, 14, and Yehoshua Englander, nine. A father-of-11 also lost his life, along with four American citizens.
One of the most poignant funerals was for Canadian citizen and singer Shraga Gestetner, from Montreal.
He had travelled alone to Israel for the Mount Meron festival and was buried without his wife and five children in attendance.
Hundreds of people attended his funeral in Jerusalem, after a call on social media from religious leaders and sympathetic mourners.
Israel Nabul, an event manager, paid tribute to Mr Gestetner as a “wonderful man who died in tragic circumstances.”