A police commander is taking responsibility for the stampede that killed at least 44 people in Israel early Friday and injured more than 100, including 38 critically. Witnesses were quick to fault police for blocking an exit from the base of Mount Meron, where 100,000 mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews had gathered for the Lag B'Omer festival, per the Times of Israel. The exit is reportedly at the end of a narrow, slopping, metal-floored walkway, "which had for years been seen as a dangerous potential bottleneck," per the BBC. The Times notes one person died at the site in 2015 when a stampede broke out during a funeral. In this case, a group reportedly slipped on the walkway shortly after midnight, falling into others, including children. A first responder told the BBC it was "a terrible disaster of people who came to celebrate ... and unfortunately were literally crushed to death."
The tragedy occurred during Israel's largest gathering since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health services at the Health Ministry, who'd raised concerns about the spread of the virus at the event, says police weren't enforcing gathering restrictions. "It is the responsibility of the police to enforce the laws of the State of Israel" and "the number of people allowed to gather outside is restricted to 100," she says, per the Times. Police said they were unable to enforce restrictions due to the crowd's size. Police commander Shimon Lavi, who oversaw security arrangements for the event, told reporters, "I bear overall responsibility, for better or worse, and am ready for any investigation." He said officers saved lives during the incident, too. Meanwhile, police sources tell Haaretz that people slipping is "out of our control." (Read more stampede stories.)