Jerusalem – Dozens of people were killed in a crush at a religious bonfire festival in Israel today, medics said, in what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described as a “heavy disaster”.
Media reports initially said a section of stadium seating had collapsed at the Lag B’Omer event in Mount Meron in the Galilee. But officials later said it appeared that the casualties had been asphyxiated or trampled in a stampede.
Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews had gathered at the tomb of the 2nd-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai for annual commemorations that include all-night prayer and dance.
It is thought to be one of the largest gatherings of people ― certainly in Israel and perhaps farther afield ― since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic more than a year ago.
The Magen David Adom ambulance service said 103 people had been injured, including dozens fatally. Channel 12 TV put the number of dead at 38. Police shut down the site and ordered revellers to be evacuated by bus.
The tomb is considered to be one of the holiest sites in the Jewish world and it is an annual pilgrimage site.
Videos posted on social media showed chaotic scenes as Ultra-Orthodox men clambered through gaps in sheets of torn corrugated iron to escape the crush, as police and paramedics tried to reach the wounded.
Bodies lay on stretchers in a corridor, completely covered in foil blankets.
On Twitter, Netanyahu called it a “heavy disaster” and added: “We are all praying for the wellbeing of the casualties.”
The gathering had been held in defiance of health officials who had worries that crowding could pose a Covid-19 risk.
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 50 per cent of the population fully vaccinated.
Police said on Thursday that they had arrested two people for disrupting officers’ efforts to keep order at the site. ― Reuters