Thousands of worshippers flocked to a Jewish holy site in northern Israel to pray and light memorial candles Wednesday under heavy police presence, a year after a chaotic stampede left 45 people dead there.
This year's Lag B'Omer holiday festivities at Mount Meron appeared orderly and began with a memorial ceremony for the victims of last year's tragedy, the largest civilian disaster in the country's history.
"We will remember the souls of the 45 pure saints who ascended to heaven," said the voice over the speaker as the names of those who perished were read one by one, and the Rebbe of the Boyan Hasidic dynasty lit 45 candles in their memory before lighting the traditional bonfire.
After the names had been read, Psalms were recited in the memory of the dead, followed by the prayer for the healing of the wounded.
Highways leading to the mountain were gridlocked hours ahead of the celebrations.
An independent commission of inquiry launched after the disaster last year looked into 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 secure their tickets in advance. Police said around 8,000 police officers would be stationed around the site to maintain order.
The site is believed to be the burial place of a prominent second century rabbi, and has drawn Jewish pilgrims and worshipers for centuries. The springtime festival is marked by large bonfires, singing and dancing.
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, paint bombs and other tools that officers suspected were meant to vandalize infrastructure at the site. At least three people were arrested.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said ahead of the holiday's commencement at sundown Wednesday that "the government of Israel has made a large investment in order to allow wide and safe participation."
"I ask the public to act according to the published guidelines and to arrive with a ticket in order that we can hold the festival safely," he said.