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A memorial is projected on the old city walls of Jerusalem on May 2, 2021, as Israel declares a national day of mourning for victims of a stampede during a religious festival at Mount Meron last week.

AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images

Israel’s government watchdog said on Monday it would open an investigation into the deaths of 45 people crushed in a stampede at a Jewish religious festival last week.

State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman said his office, which audits the government, would look into the circumstances surrounding the event at Mount Meron in the Galilee region.

“I wish to announce today that I intend to open a special audit that will investigate the circumstances that led to this tragedy,” he told reporters.

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also promised a thorough investigation but did not say what form it would take or who would oversee it.

Israel observed a day of mourning on Sunday after one of its worst civilian disasters. Six U.S. citizens were among the dead, along with two Canadians, a British citizen and an Argentinian.

Englman’s office can examine and make public its findings, but cannot bring criminal charges. Many in Israel have called on the government to form a higher-level committee with greater authority to investigate what happened.

The comptroller’s office had several years ago labelled as hazardous the Mount Meron compound in northern Israel where the festival took place overnight last week between Thursday and Friday.

But tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews thronged to the tomb of 2nd-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai for the annual Lag B’Omer celebration that include all-night prayer, mystical songs and dance.

At some point a large crowd pushed its way into a narrow tunnel and the 45 celebrants, including children, were asphyxiated or trampled.

Questions have been raised as to whether the government and police were reluctant to limit the crowd size at the site so as not to anger influential ultra-Orthodox rabbis and politicians.

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At a memorial session in parliament on Tuesday, Netanyahu said: “We will examine in an orderly, deep and responsible manner all of the issues related to assemblies on the mountain, in the present and the past.”

He said entry and exit procedures, police deployment and “above all the structural changes necessary at the site” would be looked into.

Englman said he would investigate the actions of all groups leading up to and during the festival – “from the level of decision-makers to those in the field, including law enforcement.”

For its part, the Justice Ministry has said it will look into whether there had been any police misconduct.

Dozens of people were killed in a stampede at a religious bonfire festival in Israel on Friday, medics said, in what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described as a 'heavy disaster.' Reuters

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