A stampede at a religious festival attended by tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in northern Israel killed at least 44 people and injured about 150 early Friday, medical officials said. It was one of the country’s deadliest civilian disasters, said AP in its report from Jerusalem.
The stampede began when large numbers of people thronged a narrow tunnel-like passage during the event, according to witnesses and video footage. People began falling on top of each other near the end of the walkway, as they descended slippery metal stairs, witnesses said.
Video footage showed large numbers of people, most of them black-clad ultra-Orthodox men, squeezed in the tunnel. Initial reports said police barricades had prevented people from exiting quickly.
The stampede occurred during the celebrations of Lag BaOmer at Mount Meron, the first mass religious gathering to be held legally since Israel lifted nearly all restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic. The country has seen cases plummet since launching one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns late last year.
Lag BaOmer draws tens of thousands of people, most of them ultra-Orthodox Jews, each year to honor Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd century sage and mystic who is believed to be buried there. Large crowds traditionally light bonfires, pray and dance as part of the celebrations.
This year, media estimated the crowd at about 100,000 people.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who briefly visited Mount Meron around midday Friday, said it was “one of the worst disasters that has befallen the state of Israel” and offered condolences to the families. He said Sunday would be a day of national mourning.
At least 44 people were killed, according to health and rescue officials. In the immediate aftermath of the stampede, rescue workers collected the bodies, wrapped them in white covers and laid them side by side on the ground at the site. Bodies were later taken to Israel’s central forensic pathology institute.
By mid-morning Friday, efforts were still under way to identify some of the victims and connect families with missing relatives. In the night from Thursday to Friday, cell phone coverage around Mount Meron had collapsed for hours and emergency hotlines were overwhelmed with phone calls.
In a race against time, funerals were to be held before sundown Friday, the start of the Jewish Sabbath when burials do not take place. The Justice Ministry said the police’s internal investigations department was launching a probe into possible criminal misconduct by officers.
Condolences were sent by foreign leaders and diplomats, including the U.S. charge d’affaires. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote on Twitter that his “thoughts are with the Israeli people and those who have lost loved ones in this tragedy.”
The European Union said in a statement that it conveyed “deepest condolences to families and friends of the victims” and wished a speedy recovery to the injured.