A year after the disaster, thousands of people flock to the Israeli holy site

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JERUSALEM — Police made preparations at a Jewish holy site in northern Israel ahead of the arrival of thousands of mostly ultra-Orthodox worshipers and revelers on Wednesday, a year after a chaotic stampede linked to overcrowding left 45 dead.

This year’s Lag Ba’Omer festivities at Mount Meron are overshadowed by last year’s deaths, the biggest civil disaster in the country’s history.

The highways leading to the mountain were already blocked hours before the celebrations.

An independent commission of inquiry launched after the disaster examined major safety lapses and overcrowding at the mountaintop site and recommended limiting attendance and revamping safety protocols and infrastructure.

Attendance this year is limited to 16,000 people, who had to book tickets in advance. Police said around 8,000 officers would be stationed around the site to maintain order.

The site is believed to be the burial place of a prominent 2nd-century rabbi and has attracted Jewish pilgrims and devotees for centuries. The spring festival is marked by big bonfires, songs and dances.

On Tuesday, police said they stopped a minibus near Mount Meron carrying members of a radical ultra-Orthodox sect in possession of box cutters, wire cutters, spray paint and other tools officers suspected to be intended to vandalize the infrastructures of the site. At least three people were arrested.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said Wednesday before the start of the sunset holiday that “the Israeli government has made a significant investment in order to enable broad and safe participation.”

“I ask the public to act within the published guidelines and arrive with a ticket so that we can hold the festival safely,” he said.

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