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Officials are watching closely as Israel mourns the 45 killed at the festival News

JERUSALEM (AP) – On Sunday, officials came under increasing scrutiny for ignoring warnings of security breaches in one of Israel’s most visited holy sites when the country mourned 45 ultra-Orthodox Jews killed in a stampede at a festival there.

The disaster on Mount Meron has also exacerbated the debate over the role of the ultra-Orthodox minority in Israel and the refusal of some of its leaders to recognize the power of the state. The festival gathered about 100,000 people, most of them ultra-Orthodox Jews, after powerful ultra-Orthodox politicians reportedly pressured Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and others to lift restrictions on attendance.

On Sunday, a group of retired police commissioners called on the prime minister to set up an independent commission with broad powers to investigate. This body will have the power to investigate high-ranking politicians and decision-makers beyond the ongoing investigation of the Ministry of Justice, which is examining possible misconduct by police officers on the ground.

The increasingly fierce accusation game is taking place during the political power struggle between Netanyahu and former allies who have turned into enemies seeking to overthrow him. After a failed election in March, Netanyahu’s chances of forming a ruling coalition and staying in power appear to be waning. His ultra-Orthodox political allies will occupy a prominent place in any government under Netanyahu.

The pressure, the deadliest civil catastrophe in Israeli history, occurred early Friday during a festival called Lag BaOmer on Mount Meron in northern Israel. It is believed to be the burial place of the outstanding second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai. The annual spring holidays are celebrated by lighting large bonfires, singing and dancing.

This year’s celebrations took place despite national restrictions against the coronavirus that prevent more than 500 people from meeting outdoors, and years of criticism from police and health officials in recent years regarding the safety of mass gatherings at the site.

The usual complaint after the stampede was that no body was responsible for the safety of the festival.

The site is allegedly run by the National Center for Holy Places under the Ministry of Religious Services.

But Eli Ben Dahan, a former deputy minister of religious services, said in an interview with Radio Kahn, “there is not a single person who can be said to be in charge of the event, that everything is on their shoulders.” Mount Meron is divided between many religious trusts, he explained, and called for its transfer to a single administrative authority.

“I do not think that the place in the state of Israel should be extraterritorial, that the state does not control it, does not control it, is not responsible for it,” he said.

Several retired police commanders told Israeli television last weekend that they had been under strong political pressure over the years to comply with the wishes of religious politicians. They said they do not have the authority to comply with security rules such as restricting visits.

Joseph Schwinger, head of the National Center of Holy Places, said in an interview hours before the stampede that Interior Minister Arie Derry of the ultra-Orthodox Shass party “fought like a lion” at a cabinet meeting to allow the festival to take place. unimpeded. Schwinger said Derry deserves credit for “saving” the Lag BaOmer celebration from a more limited format.

Experts have long warned that the site is insufficiently equipped to accommodate large numbers of visitors on holidays, and that the current state of infrastructure poses a security threat.

Warnings became a reality early Friday as thousands of people leaving one section of the site passed through a narrow passage that descended from the mountain. The slippery slope and stairs caused people to slip and fall, resulting in an avalanche that killed 45 people and injured at least 150.

By Sunday morning, health officials had identified all the dead. All but one of the dead were buried at hasty funerals with a break on Jewish Saturday between sunset on Friday and sunset on Saturday. One person who attended the event on Thursday night is still missing.

Israel celebrated National Day of Mourning on Sunday. In Israel and its diplomatic missions abroad, flags were waved in half, and sporting and cultural events were canceled.

The tragedy comes at a tangible time for Netanyahu, who is struggling to assemble a governing coalition in the weeks following the March 23 parliamentary elections.

His deadline for forming a new government is Tuesday, but he may ask Israel’s chief president to extend it for two weeks.

Israel has held four elections in two years, the longest-running political crisis in the country’s history. Netanyahu’s strongest coalition partners are the two ultra-Orthodox parties, which have enormous influence in Israeli politics as kings in governing coalitions.

If he fails to form a government, a free coalition of his opponents and former allies may be able to form his own government.

Netanyahu is on trial for fraud, abuse of trust and bribery in three cases. He denies any wrongdoing and refused to resign while he was charged.

Copyright 2021 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or distributed without permission.

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