Although, baruch Hashem, Lag BaOmer was on the whole calm and peaceful in Meron, there was one near disaster.
Yaakov Reinitz writes in the Hebrew Hamodia ,that catastrophe was narrowly averted on Motzoei Lag BaOmer in Meron after pepper spray was sprayed in the courtyard of the tziyun of Rabi Shimon Bar Yochai. According to eyewitness reports, dozens of people were injured lightly, some of whom suffering pain all over their body. Hamodia’s reporter notes that eyewitnesses related that “we already recited Shema Yisrael. We were sure that these were our final moments on this earth.”
There are various theories about what happened due to the spray, but first, the question: Who sprayed pepper spray at a mass of thousands of people in the courtyard of the tziyun? The police claim firmly that it was not a member of the police force, but there are testimonies that describe a man wearing a dark police uniform intentionally spraying at the crowd.
According to eyewitness accounts, the policeman stood on the inner part of the courtyard, on the women’s side, very close to the regular door in the mechitzah; on the other side, in the men’s section, is an orchestra stage. At one point, the officer (“tall with dark hair”) began to exercise force against a woman who did not want to move ahead (or something to that effect) and on the other side, several people began to protest to the officer. The latter apparently became distressed and sprayed the spray in an effort to disperse the protesters.
Another eyewitness account describes the situation: “I came at the moment the officer began spraying and I clearly saw how a uniformed police officer stood beside the mechitzah, on the ladies’ side, bent down a bit, found a hole in the mechitzah, and held a round, black can in his hand and sprayed five or six times into the crowd.”
When Hamodia presented these testimonies to police, they continued to stick to their version that the police had no connection to the spraying.
The police claim that they have a video clip of the entire incident, and if that is the case, then it is very important for them to publicize it so that everyone can see what happened there. If indeed it was a police officer, this is a bombshell, because a police officer is supposed to know what kind of catastrophe can happen when pepper spray is used on a mass crowd. If people have any photos or evidence of this event, they are asked to send them to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reb Pinchas Lichtenstein of Rechovot relates what he saw: “I was standing in the courtyard near the area of the washing. Everything was calm and normal. It was even rather empty. Suddenly I heard shouting in Yiddish and Hebrew: ‘Arois,’ ‘hachutzah,’ and I saw a crush of people pushing from the direction of the tziyun to the exit in the courtyard. I wanted to get out but I was pressed between the masses; in seconds I couldn’t move. I tried to move towards the exit but I was suspended in the air; my feet weren’t on the ground. I felt like I had no air in my lungs and I couldn’t breathe.
“Suddenly someone shouted to get back into the tziyun and I realized that no one knew what was going on. The music continued playing as though nothing was happening. That’s when I collapsed because I couldn’t breathe. I was in a daze and I don’t remember much about those few minutes, but I remember that I lay on top of someone about age 60 with a white beard, and next to me were also little children who felt choked and screamed loudly: ‘Tatty, I can’t breathe!’
“Those were horrible moments. I cried ‘Shema Yisrael…’ Suddenly in the fog I heard someone scream: ‘Keep moving.’ I don’t know where I got the strength but I kicked off my shoes and somehow I was able to move towards the stairs. I have no shoes, no yarmulke and a torn suit and shirt. People from upstairs did not understand what happened to me. They didn’t realize what was going on in the courtyard because the band continued playing.
“I personally was injured, and have a fracture in my back. On Shabbos I made the brachah of Hagomel, but I am traumatized from the experience. It was a step away from a mass incident with loss of life,” Reb Pinchas concludes.
Another avreich from Elad relates: “A Chassid with a two-year-old son in his arms stood next to me, howling: ‘They are killing my son; he can’t breathe!’ People began to fall and lay on the floor crying and screaming. It was stifling and people began to cough in an effort to breathe a bit. Young and old alike screamed: ‘We’re choking!’ I heard screams of ‘Shema Yisrael.’ It was a horrific scene and I can’t get it out of my mind.”
This young man, who has glasses with a prescription of 10.5, fell and his glasses broke. His hat and suit flew off, and miraculously he emerged, without shoes and unable to see. A kind Yid from Elad helped him to the bus.
One person who this reporter spoke to notes that there were some people, who, in their haste to get away from the scene, stepped on others. But most of them remembered what happens when someone tramples on another in such a crush, and preferred to suffer and not to step on others; that is how a great tragedy was averted.
People began to drag some of the victims lying on the floor out of the courtyard in an effort to help them breathe and to release some of the pressure in the courtyard. Anyone who was there describes the horror of those moments, and the thoughts that the worst had happened that flashed through their minds. Someone also filed a complaint with the police. This is something that must not die down until conclusions are drawn to prevent a recurrence.
It should be noted that there are testimonies of people who said that on Lag BaOmer night, at about 2:45 a.m., someone sprayed tear gas in the tziyun, but people were able to leave rapidly, without pushing, and except for some coughing and irritation of the eyes, that incident was over rapidly.