Religious festival stampede in Israel

At least 44 people have been killed in a stampede at a religious festival in the north-east of Israel. The national emergency service Magen David Adom (MDA) said dozens more had been wounded at the Lag B’Omer festival, at the foot of Mount Meron.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described it as a “heavy disaster” and said he was praying for the casualties. Israeli investigators are examining what caused a crush that killed at least 44 worshipers at a mass religious gathering in Mount Meron overnight. The crush occurred as tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews thronged to the Galilee tomb of 2nd-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai for annual Lag B’Omer commemorations to pay homage  that include all-night prayer, mystical songs and dance. Witnesses said people were asphyxiated or trampled in a tightly packed passageway, some going unnoticed until the PA system sounded an appeal to disperse, as crowds packed the Mount Meron slope in defiance of COVID-19 warnings. In the early hours of Friday morning, singing and dancing erupted into chaos, as a huge wave of people trapped others beneath them, including children.

Emergency officials said 38 people were in critical condition at the site, with six more critically injured but evacuated and scores more wounded less seriously. Early reports suggested a structure at the site collapsed, but MDA officials later said it was the result of a stampede. Police sources told Haaretz that it started after some attendees slipped on some steps, causing dozens more to fall.