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Thousands join Jewish pilgrimage year after stampede at Israel’s Mount Meron

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Tens of thousands of Jewish faithful were expected at Israel’s Mount Meron on Wednesday for an annual pilgrimage, a year after 45 people were crushed to death in a stampede.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said his government made a “considerable investment” in new safety measures to ensure there is no repeat of what was described as the greatest civilian disaster in Israeli history.

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The Mount Meron pilgrimage occurs on the Lag BaOmer holiday, when mainly ultra-Orthodox Jews throng the site of the tomb of revered second century rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.

On April 30 last year, a stampede broke out in the male section of the gender-divided site as the size of the crowd turned a narrow passageway into a deadly choke-point.

At least 16 children were among those trampled to death.

Bennett urged worshippers to follow new rules put in place for the event.

Among those is a cap of 16,000 pilgrims allowed at the site at any given moment. Tickets must also be acquired in advance.

Israel’s Magen David Adom emergency service said that it is expecting hundreds of thousands of worshippers at Mount Meron on Wednesday.

Hundreds of medical workers will be there “in light of last year’s horrible disaster,” it added.

Some 8,000 officers will be on hand to maintain order. Police said they would deploy mounted officers, drones and a helicopter to patrol the site.

Police said they would secure all access roads to the site, as well as the surrounding forest, to prevent unauthorized entries breaking the cap on numbers.

On Tuesday, police said they had seized knives and hammers from an “extremist ultra-Orthodox faction” which allegedly intended to sabotage communications infrastructure at the site.

Last June, the government set up a commission of inquiry to probe last year’s disaster but it has yet to report its findings.

In interim recommendations published in November, the commission warned that even after infrastructure improvements at the site, it is still “awash with harmful hazards that endanger the safety of visitors.”

According to tradition, Lag BaOmer marks the death of Bar Yochai, one of Judaism’s great sages.

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