Learning from the deadly Hajj stampede

This article originally appeared at themedialine.org.

More than 700,000 pilgrims are already on the ground and nearly a million and half more are expected by mid-week; the annual Hajj season is now underway in Mecca with Saudi authorities pledging that they are on top of both safety and security.

But a stampede last year that resulted in the deaths of over 2,000 pilgrims and new terror threats – including a foiled plot to assassinate the Emir of Mecca – underscore the danger of attending the world’s biggest annual gathering of people.

This year authorities have introduced electronic bracelets for all pilgrims. 

The GPS-connected devices will track each pilgrim and instruct worshippers on timings of prayers with multi-lingual support to guide non-Arabic speaking visitors around the ritual stations that make up the course of the Hajj.

“The electronic bracelet stores the personal information of each pilgrim including where the person entered the kingdom, visa number, passport number and address,” said Eisa Mohammad Rawas, deputy head of the Hajj and Umrah [Islamic Pilgrimage] Ministry. “The new device will allow better service from government and private sector bodies, especially to those who are lost, elderly and do not speak Arabic.”

While the “e-bracelets” are being touted as a safety device, the digital trackers are part of a ramped-up security approach to the Hajj.

This year’s Hajj officially runs from September 9 to 14.

The authorities have tightened rules for domestic pilgrims, and Saudi nationals will be required to show special Hajj permits at road checkpoints at entrances to Mecca.

“A thousand new surveillance cameras were installed this month at the Grand Mosque,” the Assistant Commander of Haj Security Forces Major General Saud Al Khileiwi announced. “They are linked to a control room staffed by special forces tasked with monitoring pilgrim movements.”

Al Khileiwi added that he was deploying special forces inside the mosque – the landmark 356,800 square meter structure enveloping the Kaba, Islam’s holiest place.  

For the first time this year, wheelchairs used by the disabled for circumambulation of the Kaba have been banned from the mosque’s ground floor section. “The decision has been taken to ensure the safety of all pilgrims,” said Civil Defense chief Brig. Ahmed Al-Dulaiwi. “Wheelchair-bound pilgrims have been allocated the upper floors of the mosque.”

The 10,000-room Abraj Kudai Hotel – slated to be the world’s largest – will not be open until next year’s Hajj season, but Saudi officials announced this week that they had imported enough air-conditioned tents to house an additional 82,000 pilgrims.

With more pilgrims and their likely need for medical attention, the Saudi Red Crescent says it is boosting its presence at the Hajj with 1,579 paramedics and 1,400 volunteer physicians.

“We’ve deployed 2,979 of our staff to work in Mecca, Medina and other holy sites to provide ambulance services to the guests of Allah,” said Red Crescent Chairman, Mohammed Abdullah Al-Qasim.

Saudi’s Civil Defense Agency convened its top commanders for an operational briefing Saturday where they were told “not to be lenient toward any violations of safety requirements.”

Civil Defense patrols are on special lookout to prevent pilgrims from using unauthorized cooking gas fires. Clearly, however, Saudi Arabia’s security services have identified threats with larger national implications than unauthorized campfires.

On Thursday the country’s Interior Ministry announced that it had detained 47 Saudis and 69 expatriates in a month long pre-Hajj roundup of terror suspects.

Six detainees were accused of a belonging to an Al-Qaeda cell plotting to assassinate the Emir of Mecca Khaled Al-Faisal.

“The arrest of a Takfiri terrorist cell that planned to assassinate Prince Khaled and further warnings from security personnel, did not deter him from carrying out 17 field tours of the holy sites in recent weeks,” noted the mass circulation Jeddah daily Okaz in a laudatory editorial Saturday.

More than 700 pilgrims die in crush in worst Hajj disaster for 25 years

At least 717 pilgrims from around the world were killed on Thursday in a crush outside the Muslim holy city of Mecca, Saudi authorities said, in the worst disaster to strike the annual Hajj pilgrimage for 25 years.

At least 863 others were injured at Mina, a few kilometers east of Mecca, when two large groups of pilgrims arrived together at a crossroads on their way to performing the “stoning of the devil” ritual at Jamarat, Saudi civil defense said.

Thursday's disaster was the worst to occur at the pilgrimage since July 1990, when 1,426 pilgrims suffocated in a tunnel near Mecca. Both incidents occurred on Eid al-Adha (Feast of the Sacrifice), Islam's most important feast and the day of the stoning ritual.

Photographs published on the Twitter feed of Saudi civil defense on Thursday showed pilgrims lying on stretchers while emergency workers in high-visibility jackets lifted them into an ambulance.

Other images showed bodies of men in white Hajj garments piled on top of each other. Some corpses bore visible injuries.

Unverified video posted on Twitter showed pilgrims and rescue workers trying to revive some victims.

The Hajj, the world's largest annual gathering of people, has been the scene of numerous deadly stampedes, fires and riots in the past, but their frequency has been greatly reduced in recent years as the government spent billions of dollars upgrading and expanding Hajj infrastructure and crowd control technology.

Safety during Hajj is a politically sensitive issue for the kingdom's ruling Al Saud dynasty, which presents itself internationally as the guardian of orthodox Islam and custodian of its holiest places in Mecca and Medina.


Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince and Interior Minister Prince Mohammed bin Nayef bin Abdelaziz ordered a committee to be formed to investigate the disaster and present its findings to King Salman, the Interior Ministry said.

The ministry spokesman, Mansour Turki said the investigation would look into what caused an unusual density of pilgrims to congregate at the location of the disaster. “The reason for that is not known yet,” he told a news conference in Mina.

U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and the White House offered condolences over the deaths.

“This tragic incident is all the more distressing as it took place on the first day of the Holy Eid Al-Adha marking the end of the annual Hajj season,” the secretary general's spokesman said in a statement.

In Washington, White House spokesman Ned Price said: “The United States expresses its deepest condolences to the families of the hundreds of Hajj pilgrims killed and hundreds more injured in the heartbreaking stampede in Mina, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”

Iranian state news agency IRNA said at least 95 Iranians were among the dead and quoted Iran's Deputy Foreign Minister Hossein Amir Abdollahian as saying Saudi Arabia was responsible.

The semi-official Fars news agency reported that Tehran summoned the Saudi charge d'affaires to lodge an official complaint over the disaster.

South African Acting President Cyril Ramaphosa extended condolences to families of the victims and said his government was awaiting information about his country's pilgrims.


Street 204, where the crush occurred, is one of two main arteries leading through the camp at Mina to Jamarat, the site where pilgrims ritually stone the devil by hurling pebbles at three large pillars. In 2006, at least 346 pilgrims died in a stampede at Jamarat.

“Work is under way to separate large groups of people and direct pilgrims to alternative routes,” the Saudi Civil Defense said on its Twitter account.

It said more than 220 ambulances and 4,000 rescue workers had been sent in to help the injured. Some of the wounded were evacuated by helicopters.

An Arab pilgrim who did not want to give his name said he had hoped to perform the stoning ritual later on Thursday afternoon but was now too frightened to risk doing so.

“I am very tired already and after this I can't go. I will wait for the night and if it not resolved, I will see if maybe somebody else can do it on my behalf,” he said.

Efforts to improve safety at Jamarat have included enlarging the three pillars and constructing a three-decker bridge around them to increase the area and number of entry and exit points for pilgrims to perform the ritual.

More than 100,000 police and thousands of video cameras are also deployed to allow groups to be dispersed before they reach dangerous levels of density.

“Please pilgrims do not push one another. Please leave from the exit and don't come back by the same route,” an officer kept repeating through a loudspeaker at Jamarat.

Two weeks ago 110 people died in Mecca's Grand Mosque when a crane working on an expansion project collapsed during a storm and toppled off the roof into the main courtyard, crushing pilgrims underneath.

What’s behind the Euro division on Palestinians’ Mecca pact?

When Mahmoud Abbas announced in Mecca that an agreement had been reached for a Palestinian unity government, Europe’s united position toward the Palestinian Authority came apart at the seams.

Paris strongly favored the agreement, while Berlin and Brussels remained cautious, preferring to hold their applause until the new government presented its principles and intentions to the world.

Two weeks later, the Palestinians are still far from translating the Mecca pact into a viable political structure. Still, Europe is preparing to launch a new aid mechanism that will replace the humanitarian aid Europe has been providing since Hamas’ election with a more structured program aimed at rebuilding the Palestinian economy.

The European Commission already has outlined the plan and is waiting for a green light from Brussels to put it into action.

Since Hamas took control of the Palestinian Authority Cabinet and legislature in March 2006, the diplomatic Quartet overseeing the Israeli-Palestinian peace process — the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia — set three conditions the government had to meet before direct aid could be restored: recognition of Israel, renunciation of violence and an acceptance of past peace deals.

Even Europe had to admit that the Mecca agreement fell short on all three counts.

That left European officials with a dilemma: Should they continue to boycott the P.A. government or fudge Europe’s conditions enough so it can argue that the new P.A. government has met them?

A long-term boycott seemed out of the question: Europe has been pointing fingers at Israel for more than a year now, blaming it for the deterioration in Palestinian living conditions, which E. U. officials classify as a “humanitarian disaster.”

That’s despite the fact that since the “boycott,” the international community in fact has been providing more aid to nongovernmental organizations and other groups that serve Palestinians than it used to send through the P. A.

France and Germany went head-to-head at a European ministerial meeting in Brussels in mid-February, disagreeing about how to react to the possible new government. At the end of the day the ministers issued a dry and cautious statement congratulating the Saudi prince who hosted the Palestinian talks and encouraging P.A. President Abbas of the Fatah movement, but little more than that.

European diplomats admitted that they had reached a dead end since Hamas was not ready to take the step of recognizing Israel.

Considering Europe’s initial caution, Abbas’ tour of European capitals this week proved quite profitable.

Officials in Berlin kept their guard, making positive noises but offering Abbas nothing concrete to bring home.

His meetings in France, on the other hand, provided just what he came for — a solid pledge to support the future P.A. government, not just with encouraging declarations but with a re-evaluation of European demands.

French President Jacques Chirac surmised that the very act of forming a unity government would lead Palestinian groups to recognize Israel.

Chirac “estimates that the Mecca agreement represents the first step toward fulfilling the Quartet conditions,” the Elysee Palace said in a statement released after Chirac and Abbas met Feb. 24. France “fully supports the efforts made by President Abbas to compose a unity government according to the Quartet principles,” French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said, though the Mecca agreement had done nothing of the sort.

Spain and Italy are following France’s lead. But what explains France’s abrupt shift?

In addition to providing an opening to restore Europe’s sense that it is an important player in the conflict, Paris believes the Saudi-sponsored initiative presents a “now-or-never” opportunity to stop internecine Palestinian violence. France also concluded it was pointless to continue demanding that Hamas recognize Israel, since the terrorist group shows no signs of moderating.

At the same time, Paris is trying to reassert its traditionally high international profile and gain the upper hand from Germany regarding the Israeli-Palestinian file.

Given those considerations, the Mecca agreement might provide the fig leaf Europe has been seeking to resume aid. Now that Abbas has managed to stop the violence in Gaza, Paris believes the West must move quickly to reward him.

But Javier Solana, the high representative for European external relations, who met with Abbas on Feb. 23 in Brussels, made clear that no aid package would be delivered before the Palestinian government shows its colors.

“We have two possibilities — that the government of national unity will be part of the solution, or that the government of national unity will be part of the problem,” Solana said after the meeting. “I hope very much from the bottom of my heart that this government will be part of the solution.”

Benita Ferrero-Waldner, the European commissioner for foreign relations, met with Israeli and Palestinian officials this week. She presented the new E.U. aid program, which focuses on institution-building projects, reconstruction of the P.A. police and justice infrastructure and other development plans.

Ahead of a European summit planned for March 8-9, France will continue trying to convince Germany and Britain to adopt a more flexible approach.

The combination of the latest French declaration with the ready-to-go aid plan prepared by the European Commission might force E.U. member states to adopt Paris’ new policy and effectively abandon their previous conditions for aid, rather than waiting for Hamas to move toward Europe.

Mecca in the Valley

Deep red curtains, dark lighting, cushiony pillows and pictures of camels and bellydancers adorning the walls: That’s what you’d expect from a restaurant reputed to be one of the best Middle Eastern eateries in Southern California.

Instead, what you find is a bright diner-like atmosphere, with orange and yellow arches on the walls, in a strip mall in Sherman Oaks. Oh, and a long line of Americans, Arabs, Druse and Israelis.

Carnival’s green awning welcomes guests in Hebrew ("Bruchim Ha’baim") English and Arabic. Newspapers in three languages line the table of the anteroom, as people wait for a table or takeout on this busy Saturday night.

More than a month after the terrorist attack on America, when incidents of prejudice and hate crimes against Arabs — and people of Middle Eastern appearance — have climbed to a worrisome pitch, the restaurant seems largely untouched.

"The nice thing about this place is that everyone can intermingle and leave politics out the door," says Michael Jamal, 39, a Lebanese-American Druse from Studio City.

"One thing about the restaurant — you would think if all these people can sit and eat and enjoy without feeling guilt or tension, this should be an example for the whole Middle East."

Sharon Skolnik certainly didn’t come to talk politics or socialize. Skolnik, 26, who came to the United States six weeks ago from Israel, visited the restaurant with her boyfriend for the food. "It’s just known to have great food. Everyone knows about it," she says in Hebrew.

Some 50 percent of the customers are Israeli, management say, and the other half are a mix of everyone else.

Arlene Batchley, a native New Yorker who has lived in Encino for years, this time brought her son, Gary, who sports a number of tattoos and a necklace with a gold coin set into a Star of David.

"He said to me that after Sept. 11 no one’s going to come here," Arlene says gesturing to the long line. "He was wrong."

The attacks on America haven’t scared people away from this Lebanese restaurant which serves Middle Eastern food like moussaka, kibbeh, stuffed grape leaves, shawarma, hummus and baba ghannouj. If anything, say the restaurant staff, people have been friendlier and have gone out of the way to come here.

"There’s been no difference from our customers, everyone is open-minded," says Nabil Halaby, Carnival’s part owner and manager for the last 12 years. The restaurant was opened 17 years ago by its chef, Afif Al-Hakim, who named it after his first job, at a restaurant of the same name, in the thriving capital city of Beirut.

Halaby, 42, is a Lebanese Druse born and raised in Kuwait until he moved to America at age 16. At the end of a busy evening, he sits around the table with the waitresses, kibbitzing with them in a way that it’s unclear who’s boss.

"It’s not easy working with a mix of Middle Easterners," he says. "They all put their two cents in."

"But we don’t get anything back!" jokes Najwa Shaw, one of the waitresses.

"Seriously," says Aline Fahima, "A lot of our customers come in and want to talk about politics or the situation, but we don’t discuss it with them, really. Between ourselves, well, we’re like family."

Halaby adds his two cents: "Our customers too, we know 90 percent of them, their families, what they like
to eat. We see their kids grow up, so they’re like family too.”