(AP) — A stampede broke out early Friday at a Jewish religious festival attended by tens of thousands of people in northern Israel, killing nearly 40 people and leaving some 150 hospitalized, medical officials said.
The stampede, one of the deadliest civilian disasters in Israeli history, occurred during the celebrations of Lag BaOmer at Mount Meron. Tens of thousands of people, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, gather each year to honor Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd century sage and mystic who is buried there. Large crowds traditionally light bonfires, pray and dance as part of the celebrations.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “great tragedy,” and said everyone was praying for the victims.
Media estimated the crowd at about 100,000 people.
Eli Beer, director of the Hatzalah rescue service, said he was horrified by how crowded the event was, saying the site was equipped to handle perhaps a quarter of the number who were there.
“Close to 40 people died as a result of this tragedy,” he told the station.
The incident happened after midnight, and the cause of the stampede was not immediately clear. Videos circulating on social media showed large numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews packed together 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 a vortex was created.” He said a first row of people fell down, and then a second row, where he was standing, also began to fall down from the pressure of the stampede.
“I felt like I was about to die,” he said.
Zaki Heller, spokesman for the Magen David Adom rescue service, said 150 people had been hospitalized, several dozen in serious or critical condition. Army Radio, citing anonymous medical officials, said the death toll had risen to 44.
That would match the death toll of a 2010 forest fire, which is believed to be the deadliest civilian tragedy in the country’s history.
Heller told the station “no one had ever dreamed” something like this could happen. “In one moment, we went from a happy event to an immense tragedy,” he said.
Photos from the scene showed rows of wrapped bodies.
The Israeli military said it had dispatched medics and search and rescue teams along with helicopters to assist with a “mass casualty incident” in the area. It did not provide details on the nature of the disaster.
It was the first huge 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.
Health authorities had nevertheless warned against holding such a large gathering.
But when the celebrations started, the Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, police chief Yaakov Shabtai and other top officials visited the event and met with police, who had deployed 5,000 extra forces to maintain order.
Ohana, a close ally of Netanyahu, thanked police for their hard work and dedication “for protecting the well-being and security for the many participants” as he wished the country a happy holiday.
Netanyahu is struggling to form a governing coalition ahead of a Tuesday deadline, and the national tragedy is sure to complicate those efforts.