Israeli security guards and rescuers carry the body of a victim of an apparent onslaught on the mountain during the Lag Ba’Omer celebrations. Meron in northern Israel on Friday. AP hide caption
JERUSALEM – A Jewish religious gathering attended by tens of thousands in northern Israel saw an onslaught early Friday that injured scores of people. Israeli media reported that at least 40 people were killed and photos of rows of bodies were published.
The disaster occurred on Mount Meron during the main celebrations of Lag BaOmer, a holiday where tens of thousands of people, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, gather to honor Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd century sage and mystic who buried there lies. As part of the celebrations at Mount Meron, large crowds traditionally light campfires.
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 onslaught was not immediately clear. Videos circulated on social media showed large numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews crammed into a small space.
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 and then a second row he was standing in fell from the pressure of the stampede.
“I felt like I was going to die,” he said.
Magen David Adom’s ambulance service tweeted that 103 people are being treated, 38 of them in critical condition. Israeli media had previously reported that a grandstand had collapsed, but ambulance services said all injuries occurred in a rush.
Israeli media reported that up to 40 people were killed, citing anonymous medical officials, but ambulance services did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation. Photos of 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 in a “mass accident” in the area. No details of the nature of the disaster were given.
It was the first major religious gathering legally held since Israel lifted almost all restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic. Since the start of one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns at the end of last year, cases have decreased.
The health authorities had nevertheless warned against holding such a large gathering.
But as the celebrations began, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, Police Chief Yaakov Shabtai, and other senior officials attended the event and met with the police, who had deployed 5,000 additional armed forces to maintain order.
Ohana, a close ally of Netanyahu, thanked the police for their hard work and efforts “to protect the welfare and safety of the many attendees,” and wished the country a happy holiday.
Netanyahu is fighting to form a coalition government before Tuesday’s deadline, and national tragedy is sure to complicate that effort.