Dozens killed, hundreds injured in crush at Israeli religious festival

People were asphyxiated or trampled in tightly packed passageway, witnesses say

Dozens of people were killed in a crush at an overcrowded religious bonfire festival in Israel where tens of thousands gathered. Video: Admma / Reuters

 

At least 45 Jewish worshippers were crushed to death and hundreds hurt during celebrations marking the festival of Lag B’Omer at the foot of Mount Meron in northern Israel.

The incident appeared to have started when some people slipped causing scores more to fall over, crushing people against the fence in the tightly-congested area in the early hours of Friday morning.

Police estimate there were some 90,000 worshippers at the site, the biggest event in Israel since the start of the coronavirus pandemic.

In previous years the number of worshippers at Mount Meron has reached 250,000, spread over a few days. This year, due to the proximity of the Jewish Sabbath, although the numbers were reduced all the worshippers arrived for the Thursday night celebrations.

“There were just more and more people, until the police decided to just remove the fences from the side and to try rescue people. It took time. I remember that I lay on top of someone. He wasn’t breathing,” one of the wounded told Israel public radio.

Bodies laid out after the stampede at Mount Meron. Photograph: Ishay JErusalemite/Behadrei Haredim/AFP via Getty Images
Bodies laid out after the stampede at Mount Meron. Photograph: Ishay JErusalemite/Behadrei Haredim/AFP via Getty Images

First aid volunteer Haim Spielberg was called to the scene.

“When I arrived, I saw dozens of people lying on the floor, having been pushed into a narrow passage. Everywhere, there were cries for help,” he said. “While we were working at the scene, it was so distressing to hear the constant ringing of the cellphones of the deceased. Tears flowed from my eyes when I saw the words Dad or Mum on the phone screen.”

Frantic parents who lost contact with their children during the crush spent Friday morning trying to locate their loved ones, ringing the hospitals and emergency hotlines, hoping against hope that they were not among the dead.

Lag B’Omer marks the transition from a period of mourning in the Jewish calendar to a more joyful time and followers of Jewish mysticism hold a yearly pilgrimage to the mountain on the holiday in order to honour the father of Jewish mysticism, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who is buried at the site.

Bonfires are lit and there is an ultra-Orthodox tradition to cut their sons’ hair for the first time at Mount Meron, when the child is three years old.

Prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu, visiting the site, declared Sunday a day of national mourning. Promising to carry out a comprehensive investigation, he described the disaster as one of the worst in Israel’s history.

Knesset member Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi of the left-wing Meretz called on Israel’s public security minister to resign.

“Amir Ohana, take responsibility. You were there yesterday, you saw the terrible crowding and the safety failures. You went home and did not bother to do anything. Resign,” she said.