At least 44 people have been crushed to death and dozens of others injured in a stampede at a Jewish pilgrimage site in the north of Israel on Friday morning, rescue services said.
Magen David Adom, the Israeli emergency service, said that at least 44 people were killed during the event early on Friday. “MDA is fighting for the lives of dozens wounded, and will not give up until the last victim is evacuated,” it added.
On social media, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “heavy disaster” that killed at least 44 people and added: “We are all praying for the wellbeing of the casualties.”
The stampede occurred as tens of thousands of mainly ultra-Orthodox Jews were participating in an annual pilgrimage for the feast of Lag BaOmer, in Mount Meron, around the reputed tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second-century Talmudic sage.
A video posted on social media by Israel’s public broadcasting, Kan, showed a jampacked crowd of pilgrims walking in a narrow lane.
Yehuda Gottlieb, one of the first responders from United Hatzalah, said he saw “dozens of people fall on top of one another during the collapse”.
“A large number of them were crushed and lost consciousness.”
Israeli media published an image of a row of bodies covered in plastic bags on the ground.
Emergency services deployed six helicopters to evacuate the injured. Some of the injured have been transported by military helicopter to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, rescue workers said.
Authorities had authorised 10,000 people to gather at the site of the tomb but organisers said more than 650 buses had been chartered from across the country, bringing at least 30,000 pilgrims to Mount Meron. However, reports said that there have been reports that the crowd could be more than 100,000.
“There is no question that there was an enormous number of people at this very significant religious event…and certainly the videos bear that out.”
About 5,000 police had been deployed to secure the event, the country’s largest public gathering during the coronavirus pandemic.
The ecstatic crowds congregated despite warnings by health officials to avoid presenting COVID-19 risks.
Witnesses said they realised people had been asphyxiated or trampled when an organiser appealed over a loudhailer for the throng to disperse.
“We thought maybe there was a (bomb) alert over a suspicious package. No one imagined that this could happen here. Rejoicing became mourning, a great light became deep darkness,” a pilgrim who gave his name as Yitzhak told Channel 12 TV.
“Rabbi Shimon used to say that he could absolve the world … If he didn’t manage to cancel this edict on the very day of his exaltation, then we need to do real soul-searching.”
Lazar Hyman of the United Hatzalah volunteer rescue service, who was at the scene, told AFP news agency: “This is one of the worst tragedies that I have ever experienced.”
“I have not seen anything like this since I entered into the field of emergency medicine,” he added. Private bonfires at Mount Meron were banned last year due to coronavirus restrictions, but lockdown measures were eased this year amid Israel’s rapid COVID-19 vaccination programme that has seen more than 54 per cent of the population fully vaccinated.