Israel’s new government ready to investigate deadly festival stampede

Rescue and medical personnel are seen next to covered dead bodies on Mount Meron where fatalities were reported among the thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews gathered at the tomb of a 2nd-century sage for annual commemorations that include all-night prayer and dance

Israel’s defence minister proposed on Thursday that the country’s newly installed government launch an official inquiry into the stampede at a Jewish religious festival that killed 45 people in April.

Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews thronged to the tomb of 2nd-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in the Galilee on April 30 for the annual Lag B’Omer celebration that includes all-night prayer, mystical songs and dance.

During the ceremony part of the crowd surged into a narrow tunnel and the 45 celebrants, including children, were asphyxiated or trampled, shocking the nation and families of victims who had come from overseas. More than 150 people were injured in the crush.

Benjamin Netanyahu, who was prime minister at the time, had promised a thorough investigation, but his cabinet, which included ultra-Orthodox ministers, never took formal action and major hostilities between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas broke out less than two weeks later.

“It is a moral debt to the families, and no less, an important step meant to prevent such tragic events in the future,” said Defense Minister Benny Gantz. The Israeli military scrambled to help the rescue efforts after the stampede.

Some Israelis have questioned whether the former government and the police were reluctant to limit the crowd size at the site because of pressure from influential ultra-Orthodox religious leaders and politicians.

Gantz said the move to open an inquiry had the support of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and other senior cabinet members. It will be discussed by the new government on Sunday.

Bennett is himself religiously observant but his broad coalition – sworn in earlier this week – does not include any ultra-Orthodox parties.

Police are already carrying out a probe and Israel’s government watchdog, which years ago deemed the Meron site hazardous, has announced its own investigation, though it cannot bring criminal charges.

Recommendations from a state commission of inquiry, according to Gantz’s proposal, will carry “heavy weight” and cannot be ignored.

The panel, it said, would have “extensive powers giving it the possibility to get a broad and reliable picture of the facts and events that led to the tragedy, in all aspects, to identify failures and recommend lessons for the future”.

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