In one of Israel’s worst peacetime tragedies, at least 44 people were killed, and 150 others were wounded in a stampede overnight at an overcrowded Jewish religious meeting in the country’s north, which was attended by tens of thousands of people defying coronavirus-related restrictions.
At Mount Meron, the mass meeting was held to commemorate the Lag B’Omer, an annual religious holiday marked by all-night bonfires, prayer, and dancing.
The town is home to Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s tomb, which is considered one of the holiest sites in the Jewish world. Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai was a second-century sage.
Following the success of a major vaccination campaign that greatly reduced coronavirus-related cases, Israel recently relaxed mask-wearing standards in open areas and other restrictions. The resulting “normalcy,” although with limitations, saw jubilant crowds across Israel on Thursday evening, with children, especially schoolchildren, flocking to open spaces in large numbers to light bonfires that accompanied the Lag BaOmer celebrations.
Thousands of ultra-orthodox Jews attended the tragic incident at Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai’s tomb on Thursday night, making it Israel’s biggest event since the coronavirus pandemic broke out last year.
According to preliminary police investigation, some of the attendees slipped on the stairwell, causing a “human landslide” that crushed people in the crowd.
At least 38 people have been killed, according to a Magen David Adom (MDA) rescue official, with the number likely to rise.
A total of 150 people were injured as a result of the crash.
The death toll had risen to 44, according to Zaka, an ambulance service.
The wounded are being transported to the Ziv hospital in Safed, the Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya, Rambam hospital in Haifa, Poriya hospital in Tiberias, and Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital in Jerusalem, according to MDA Director-General Eli Bin.
Firefighters assisted by Israeli Air Force helicopters and emergency services worked to free the trapped people.
Police were attempting to clear the city of the tens of thousands of people who had witnessed the rally.
Organizers estimated that 100,000 people were at the site about midnight on Thursday, with another 100,000 expected to arrive by Friday morning, according to local media.
According to local media reports, scores of concert attendees slipped and fell on others below them while walking along a slick walkway, creating a crippling domino effect.
Ultra-Orthodox men clambered through holes in sheets of broken corrugated iron to avoid the crush, while police and paramedics rushed to reach the wound, according to videos posted on social media.
In a hallway, bodies lie on stretchers, wrapped in foil blankets.
According to the Times of Israel, Health Ministry officials advised Israelis not to travel to Mount Meron because the festivities could result in widespread coronavirus infection.
Despite this, authorities were under a lot of pressure to let it go forward, particularly because it had been cancelled the year before.
Hundreds of thousands of Jews, many of them ultra-Orthodox, visit Bar Yochai’s tomb site on Mount Meron, which is located in northern Israel’s Upper Galilee district, about 40 kilometres northeast of Haifa.
The incident is said to be one of Israel’s worst peacetime tragedies, with the death toll equalling that of the Mount Carmel forest fire in 2010.