Israel opens probe into deadly festival stampede

A state inquiry into a stampede at a Jewish pilgrimage site that killed 45 people in April began hearing witnesses on Sunday, to find out what led to Israel's worst civilian disaster.

Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews thronged the Galilee hillside tomb of a second-century sage for the annual Lag B'Omer festival that includes all-night prayer, mystical songs and dance.

During the ceremony, part of the crowd surged into a narrow tunnel and 45 men and boys were asphyxiated or trampled.

U.S. and Canadian citizens were among the dead.

Israel's government watchdog years ago deemed the Mount Meron site hazardous.

Although the number of worshippers was lower than usual, it still exceeded that permitted at the time by COVID-19 curbs.

Some Israelis had questioned whether the former government under Benjamin Netanyahu and police were reluctant to further limit the crowd size because of pressure from influential ultra-Orthodox leaders.

Launched shortly after a new government was sworn in, the state commission of inquiry has the power to summon witnesses and require them to produce any evidence it deems relevant.

Its findings will be presented to the government though they are not legally binding.

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