Police said Thursday that they had arrested three youths making their way to Mount Meron for the annual Lag B’Omer celebration, on suspicion that they planned to sabotage equipment at the site.
According to the police, the three were found with pliers, boxcutters, and spray paint in bags normally used to carry objects used for Jewish prayer.
They suspected the youths planned to use the tools to damage electrical or telecommunications equipment, including loudspeakers and screens.
The three youths’ arrest on Wednesday followed the detention of a group of men and women a day earlier, who were also suspected of planning to sabotage the event.
Hundreds of thousands of people were expected in Meron on Wednesday night and Thursday for an annual pilgrimage in honor of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who is buried there. Authorities have been under intense pressure to secure the event, after 45 people were killed in a crush of bodies last year, with radical elements in the ultra-Orthodox community protesting the changes to the site and the caps on attendance.
A statement from police accused “extremist lawbreakers” of “trying every which way to sabotage the pilgrimage. Damage to infrastructure turns into damage that threatens the whole event and causes distress among celebrants. Should command and control operations be damaged, it could put those at the site at real risk.”
Lag B’Omer marks the 33rd day of the seven-week period between the holidays of Passover and Shavuot, and is the day on which Bar Yochai is believed to have died. Bar Yochai called on his followers to celebrate the anniversary of his death, a tradition known as Yom Hilula, or a day of festivity.
At Mount Meron, where Bar Yochai is buried, the holiday is traditionally marked with ceremonial lightings of massive torches by various Hasidic sects throughout the night, from evening to dawn, with music and dancing and general revelry. In previous years, the two dozen or so torch-lightings are held in six compounds surrounding the tomb, large areas with bleachers, a stage, sound system, and a giant metal torch.
At last year’s event on Mount Meron, 45 men and boys were crushed to death and over 150 were injured as thousands of people descended a far too small, illegally constructed exit ramp, known as Dov Bridge. As throngs of people made their way down the ramp and the poorly built stairs at the end of it — and a smaller number tried going up — a massive bottleneck formed, sparking a sudden mass panic, which resulted in the unprecedented body count.
In light of last year’s tragedy, the event this year will be far smaller than previous years in terms of both the number of participants and the size of the ceremony.
In place of multiple torch-lightings throughout the night, this year will see only one lighting at a central location, preventing mass flows of participants between the different compounds.
Only 16,000 people will be allowed in the Bar Yochai tomb complex at any given time — compared to tens of thousands in previous years.
To further control the crowds, the police are banning entry to the compound on foot or by car. The only way to enter the site will be on buses arranged by the Transportation Ministry, or shuttles from a parking lot.
More than 8,000 police officers will be deployed to the Mount Meron area on Wednesday night and Thursday morning to ensure that these new rules are implemented. In addition to the officers, the police will use drones, a helicopter, all-terrain vehicles, horses, and motorbikes.
Rabbi Shmuel Yaakov Kohn, leader of the fiercely anti-Zionist Toldot Aharon sect, whose compound was the site of last year’s disaster, encouraged his adherents to go without buying tickets and said that even those who have tickets should try to get in without showing them.
“By what right can the authorities limit our ascendance to Mount Meron? We do not have to cooperate with them,” Kohn said, according to Behadrei Haredim, a Haredi news site.
Northern District police chief Shimon Lavi on Monday said the police were closely monitoring the situation and “would not allow rioters and those who want to disturb the peace to ruin the revelry on Mount Meron.”