Jewish worshipers clash with police at a Mount Meron pilgrimage site in Israel

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A crowd of Jewish worshipers broke through police barriers on Thursday during an annual pilgrimage to Israel’s Mount Meron, a year after 45 people were crushed to death in a stampede.

Israel Police said “dozens of extremists” broke into a section of the religious site while “savagely throwing down the fences and endangering human life”.

Police withdrew from the site when a group of worshipers broke down barriers and burst in, an AFP photographer said, adding that officers returned later.

More than 10,000 worshipers had converged on the site under heightened security measures for the start of the pilgrimage on Wednesday.

The Mount Meron pilgrimage takes place during the Lag BaOmer holiday, when mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews flock to the site of the tomb of revered 2nd-century rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai.

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On April 30 last year, a stampede broke out in the men’s section of the gender-divided venue 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 in what then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called “one of the worst” disasters in Israel’s history.

An AFP photographer saw several worshipers arrested and handcuffed by police on Thursday. Additionally, some security cameras and electrical equipment at the site were sabotaged, the photographer said.

Police then halted the movement of additional worshipers to the site, where the pilgrimage is taking place until Thursday evening.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Wednesday his government had made a “considerable investment” in new security measures to ensure there was no repeat of last year.

Among the changes is a cap of 16,000 pilgrims allowed on the site at any one time.

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

Some ultra-Orthodox sects are anti-Zionist and oppose the existence of the Jewish state. They are sometimes hostile to Israel’s state institutions, including its police forces.

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