A year after disaster, thousands flock to Israeli holy site

JERUSALEM (AP) — Thousands of worshippers flocked to a Jewish holy site in northern Israel to light bonfires, pray and dance Wednesday under heavy police presence, a year after a stampede there left 45 people dead.

This year’s Lag BaOmer holiday festivities at Mount Meron appeared orderly, but were overshadowed by last year’s deaths, the largest civilian disaster in the country’s history. A prominent rabbi lit 45 candles in memory of those who perished.

Highways leading to the mountain were gridlocked hours ahead of the celebrations.

An independent commission of inquiry launched after the disaster last year looked into major safety lapses and overcrowding at the mountaintop site and recommended limiting attendance and revamping safety protocols and infrastructure.

Attendance this year was limited to 16,000 people who had to secure their tickets in advance. Police said around 8,000 police officers would be stationed around the site to maintain order.

The site is believed to be the burial place of a prominent second century rabbi, and has drawn Jewish pilgrims and worshipers for centuries. The springtime festival was marked by traditional bonfires, singing and dancing.

On Tuesday, police said they stopped a minibus near Mount Meron carrying members of a radical ultra-Orthodox sect in possession of box cutters, wire cutters, paint bombs and other tools that officers suspected were meant to vandalize infrastructure at the site. At least three people were arrested.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said ahead of the holiday’s commencement at sundown Wednesday that “the government of Israel has made a large investment in order to allow wide and safe participation.”

“I ask the public to act according to the published guidelines and to arrive with a ticket in order that we can hold the festival safely,” he said.

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