Dozens of ultra-Orthodox worshipers broke through police barricades to enter the site of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s shrine on Mount Meron on Thursday afternoon, nearly trampling people inside, in the chaotic climax of the Lag Bomer holiday after the police succeeded. Restrict crowd sizes from Wednesday evening.
The footage showed crowds of pilgrims pushing through barricades to enter the room where Yuchai’s tomb is located, with those inside pushing them back and yelling at them to stop – exactly the kind of situation police sought to prevent after a rally last year when he was 45. A person was crushed to death in the deadliest civil disaster in Israel’s history.
Additional footage from the scene showed policemen clashing with pilgrims trying to storm the compound. The intruders were later seen celebrating after apparently breaching the cordon leading to the site’s central courtyard in a crowded crowd.
The riots took place ahead of an official memorial service planned to commemorate last year’s victims of the destroyer. Hebrew media reported that some of the bereaved family members who tried to enter the site were spat at or hit by objects.
Public broadcaster Kan reported that 15 people were arrested and two officers were slightly injured, adding that police rescued a number of children from crushing crowds.
Busting with violent crowds, authorities announced they would end the festivities early, stranding thousands who bought tickets to enter the site Thursday night.
In a statement announcing the decision, Deputy Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahane accused “groups of radical extremists” of deliberately sabotaging the ceremonies. He expressed support for police actions, which are aimed at “protecting lives.”
The memorial ceremonies later took place as planned. Zvi Tesler, who was appointed to coordinate Meron’s pilgrimage after the tragedy, apologized to the families for the way he went for the day.
“I am sorry that a group of people deliberately and cowardly decided to destroy what we built and it worked,” he said, according to Ynet.
“We will need to find out what happened with the police. We will see if we need to be better at certain things with the police.
מירון חזר לידי החוגגים pic.twitter.com/uz1hZosdFt
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New restrictions were introduced ahead of the Lag B’Omer festivities after last year’s tragedy, which largely continued into Thursday afternoon.
Police said the barriers the men had demolished were there to separate the men from the women at the sacred site and that a number of women and children who were inside at the time needed to withdraw quickly to avoid being injured.
Video from the scene shows the men violently breaking metal barriers, kicking them, and sometimes tossing pieces of metal.
“Officers rescued the women and children from the memorial and are working to prevent a stampede and a danger to life,” police said.
“At this point, all bus services to the mountain have ceased. The public is requested not to attempt to come to the site,” the police added.
Public Security Minister Omar Bar-Lev issued a statement criticizing the “ultra-Orthodox extremist groups who acted violently and brutally” in Meron, and offered his support for the authorities’ decision to end the event early.
The Behadrei Haredim news site reported that the police then removed some barriers and stopped trying to control the crowds that were paying to enter the site, and instead allowed them to flow without restrictions.
Unlike in past years, when hundreds of thousands packed the shrine to the mountainside, this year police restricted entry to 16,000 people at any one time, infuriating some pilgrims.
Nearly 8,000 police were deployed to the area around the cemetery on Wednesday to enforce the new safety rules.
עימותים קשים בכניסה לציון הרשב”י pic.twitter.com/5CXbU3PviT
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Order was generally maintained on Wednesday and Thursday, although some clashes with police were reported.
Inside the complex, the crowds were much smaller than in past years. One pilgrim complained that “the place was empty inside,” and said he traveled four hours from Jerusalem, but was only allowed to enter the tomb site for 30 seconds.
The authorities have put in place several safety measures aimed at avoiding a repeat of last year, limiting crowd sizes, ordering tickets and changing the way the event is organized.
The government also repaired stairs and other infrastructure around the complex to enhance safety.
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