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Israeli pilgrimage disaster inquiry urges cap on visitors, food

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - An Israeli state inquiry into a crush that killed 45 people, including Americans and Canadians, at a Jewish pilgrimage site in April recommended on Monday that future admissions be capped and ceremonies streamlined in order to prevent overcrowding.

The panel, headed by a former Supreme Court chief justice, submitted interim findings designed to help authorities better plan for the next festival at Meron, the Galilee tomb of second-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, on May 18-19.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the annual commemorations could draw as many as 200,000 worshippers for all-night prayer, mystical songs, picnics and dance around bonfires.

Tens of thousands came on April 30 to the hilltop pilgrimage site, which covers about 5.6 acres. When a crowd surged into a narrow tunnel, 45 men and boys were asphyxiated or trampled to death. Six victims were Americans, two were Canadian.

FILE PHOTO: Ultra Orthodox Jews look at stairs with waste on it in Mount Meron

Reuters/Ronen Zvulun FILE PHOTO: Ultra Orthodox Jews look at stairs with waste on it in Mount Meron

"The material brought before the commission and testimonies heard by it indicate that the maximal number of people that could be safely contained at the area at the same time is approximately 20,000," the panel said in a 16-page report.

While not recommending a target number, it said more space could be freed up by banning tents and pirate vendors at the site and by holding one central bonfire ceremony.

Pilgrims could be encouraged to rotate by bussing them in and out on tickets valid for specific hours, the panel said. It advised against allowing in food to "reduce the duration of stay (and) the danger of falling and slipping on garbage".

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett's government signalled it would implement the findings.

"The 2022 observances at Meron will be entirely different from the observances held heretofore, and will take place according to other safety standards," Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana said in a statement.

The panel is separately looking at possible culpability among planners of the April observances, which took place under the previous government of Benjamin Netanyahu.

(Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by William Maclean) 

Reference: Reuters: By Dan Williams

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