Israel to resume funerals for stampede victims after Sabbath pause


JERUSALEM (AFP) – Israel was preparing on Saturday (May 1) to bury more victims of a stampede that killed at least 45 people at a Jewish pilgrimage site, one of the nation’s worst peacetime disasters.

Most of the victims were ultra-Orthodox Jews and funerals were expected to be held after sunset, which ends the Sabbath, the Jewish day of rest.

Some funerals had already taken place on Friday, just hours after the overnight disaster.

Tens of thousands of people had thronged to Mount Meron and the reputed tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai to mark the Lag b’Omer holiday and commemorate the second-century Talmudic sage’s death.

“So far, the bodies of 32 victims of the Meron disaster have been identified,” the Israeli Health Ministry said late on Friday, adding that 22 bodies had been released for burial.

“Due to the start of the Sabbath, and by order of the Chief Rabbi of Israel, it is not possible to continue the process” of identification or to hold funerals, it said, adding that this would resume from Saturday evening.

‘Complex and sensitive’

Identification of some of the bodies may require fingerprinting, DNA and dental testing, the ministry said.

“We are working hard, but you have to understand that this is a complex and sensitive process,” said Dr Chen Kugel, director of the National Centre of Forensic Medicine.

Work must be done “responsibly” to avoid mistakes, he added.

The pilgrimage was one of the largest public gatherings in Israel since the Covid-19 pandemic erupted last year.

In a cruel irony, the Lag b’Omer holiday celebrates the end of a plague that killed thousands of Talmudic students at the time of Rabbi Bar Yochai.

Israel has fully vaccinated more than half of its 9.3 million population against the coronavirus, but restrictions remain on large public gatherings.

Officials had warned overcrowding could lead to a spike in infections, and only authorised 10,000 to attend.

Several Israeli media outlets reported that about 100,000 people had attended the pilgrimage, although AFP could not immediately confirm that figure.