JERUSALEM – A stampede broke out early Friday at a Jewish religious gathering attended by tens of thousands of people in northern Israel, leaving dozens injured, authorities said. Israeli media reported that at least 40 people were killed and published photos of rows of bodies.
The disaster occurred on Mount Meron in the main celebrations of Lag BaOmer, a holiday in which tens of thousands of people, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, gather to honor Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second-century sage and mystic who is buried there. Traditionally, large crowds light bonfires as part of the Mount Meron celebrations.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “great tragedy” and said everyone was praying for the victims.
The incident occurred after midnight and the cause of the stampede was not immediately clear. Videos circulating on social media showed large numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews huddled in tight spaces.
A 24-year-old witness, identified only by his first name Dvir, told the Army Radio station that “masses of people were pushed into the same corner and created a vortex.” He said a first row of people fell, and then a second row, where he was standing, also began to fall from the pressure of the stampede.
“I felt like I was about to die,” he said.
The Magen David Adom rescue service tweeted that he was treating 103 people, including 38 in critical condition. Israeli media had previously reported that a tribune collapsed, but the rescue service said all the injuries occurred in a stampede.
Israeli media, citing anonymous medical officials, reported that up to 40 people were killed, but the rescue service did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation. Photos from the scene showed rows of wrapped bodies.
The Israeli army said it had dispatched medics and search and rescue teams along with helicopters to help with a “mass casualty incident” in the area. It did not provide details on the nature of the disaster.
It was the first major religious gathering to be held legally since Israel lifted nearly all restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic. The country has seen cases drop since it launched one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns late last year.
However, health authorities warned against holding such a large gathering.
But when the celebrations began, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, Police Chief Yaakov Shabtai and other senior officials visited the event and met with the police, who had deployed 5,000 additional forces to maintain order.
Ohana, a close ally of Netanyahu, thanked the police for their hard work and dedication “in protecting the well-being and safety of the many participants” and wished the country a happy holiday.
Netanyahu is struggling to form a governing coalition before Tuesday’s deadline, and the national tragedy is sure to complicate those efforts.