JERUSALEM — A stampede at a mountainside religious celebration in Israel that drew tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews has left dozens dead and scores more injured.
By some estimates, about 100,000 people were crammed together late Thursday to celebrate a holiday on Mount Meron in northern Israel, despite warnings from the authorities about the risk of Covid-19 transmission.
The deadly crush began after some revelers started fleeing the scene. The Magen David Adom ambulance service later reported that 103 people had been injured.
As dawn broke in Israel, the newspapers Haaretz and The Times of Israel were reporting that at least 44 people had been killed. Haaretz said more than 50 others had been injured and that 20 of them were in critical condition.
“A terrible disaster,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declared, as conflicting reports trickled in from Mount Meron.
The holiday, Lag b’Omer, is a time when ultra-Orthodox Jews traditionally convene at the tomb of a prominent rabbi from antiquity. The festivities include dancing and bonfires.
A video said to have been taken right before the stampede showed a mass of people in ecstatic celebration, moving almost as one to the music.
Early accounts of what led to the stampede varied.
Some said people started fleeing after either a grandstand or a roof collapsed. Others said some of the celebrants had slipped on steps, setting off what the news site Ynet described as a “human avalanche.” Some rescue workers attributed the accident to the sheer volume of people.
However it began, by the time the stampede was over, a scene of joy had transformed into one of horror.
One eyewitness likened it to a war zone, telling Channel 12 TV that he had seen the bodies of two dead children. Images from the disaster scene showed bodies on stretchers, covered with foil blankets. The slope was strewn with shoes, plastic bottles and other debris.
Amid the chaos, as medics tried to navigate the crowd to get to the injured, a prominent Israeli rabbi, Meir Lau, remained on a stage trying to restore calm. Along with other leading rabbis, he read psalms for the wounded.
The annual gathering on Mount Meron, which is in the Galilee, takes place near the mystical center of Safed. The Lag b’Omer holiday is linked in Jewish tradition to the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans in the first century A.D.
Each year, large numbers of ultra-Orthodox and traditional Jews make the pilgrimage to the mountain for days of festivities. They light bonfires around the grave site of a second-century sage, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, in the hope that they will receive his blessings on the anniversary of his death.
The pilgrimage was held despite warnings from Israeli health officials that it could become a Covid-19 superspreader event. That is what appears to have happened in India this month when a vast Hindu celebration was permitted to take place.
Last year, the Israeli authorities arrested over 300 people at the Lag b’Omer celebration after large crowds gathered in defiance of coronavirus restrictions, ignoring police checkpoints on roads. Some were reported to have thrown stones and other objects at police officers who tried to control the crowd.
About 56 percent of the Israeli population had been fully vaccinated as of Thursday, according to a New York Times database, and the country’s swift inoculation campaign and plummeting infection rates have allowed it to take rapid steps back toward normalcy. Earlier this month, Israel lifted its outdoor mask mandate and fully reopened schools for the first time since September.
But there are still restrictions in place, and the gathering at Mount Meron on Thursday was described as the largest in Israel since the start of the pandemic. Thousands more people had been expected to arrive on Friday. Buses were still making their way to the mountain when the deadly crush began.
Earlier in the evening, before the stampede, the Israeli police said they had arrested two people for disrupting officers’ efforts to keep order at the site. But the crowd was so vast, the police said, that they could not make people obey coronavirus restrictions.
Even in ordinary times, when a deadly virus is not spreading in crowded quarters, mass religious gatherings pose a risk.
In Mecca in 2015, hundreds, and perhaps thousands, making the hajj pilgrimage were crushed to death or suffocated. In 2013, dozens were killed in a stampede at a train station in Allahabad, India, at the height of a Hindu religious festival that occurs once every 12 years by the banks of the Ganges and Yamuna Rivers.
At Mount Meron on Thursday, once emergency medical workers were able to gain access, they worked to resuscitate some victims, Haaretz reported. Helicopters also were sent to evacuate the injured.
But many were beyond saving.
The police shut down the celebration and ordered that the revelers be evacuated by bus.