Dozens injured in stampede at big Israeli religious festival

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Israeli security officials and rescuers carry a body of a victim who died during a Lag Ba’Omer celebrations at Mt. Meron in northern Israel, Friday, April 30, 2021. More than 100 people were injured, dozens critically, in a stampede at a Jewish religious gathering in northern Israel attended by tens of thousands of people, Israel’s main rescue service said early Friday. (AP Photo)

JERUSALEM (AP) — A stampede broke out early Friday at a Jewish religious gathering attended by tens of thousands of people in northern Israel, injuring more than 100 people, dozens critically, Israel’s main rescue service said. Israeli media reported dozens of deaths.

The disaster occurred at the main celebrations of Lag BaOmer, a holiday when tens of thousands of people, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, gather to honor Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd century sage and mystic who is buried there. Large crowds traditionally light bonfires as part of the celebrations at Mount Meron.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “great tragedy,” and said everyone was praying for the victims.

The incident happened after midnight, and the cause of the stampede was not immediately clear. Videos circulating on social media showed large numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews packed together in tight spaces.

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 down, and then a second row, where he was standing, also began to fall down from the pressure of the stampede.

“I felt like I was about to die,” he said.

The Magen David Adom rescue service tweeted that it was treating 103 people, including 38 in critical condition. Israeli media had earlier reported that a grandstand collapsed, but the rescue service said all the injuries happened in a stampede.

Israeli media, citing anonymous medical officials reported up to 40 people were killed, but the rescue service did not immediately respond to a request for confirmation. Photos from 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 with a “mass casualty incident” in the area. It did not provide details on the nature of the disaster.

It was the first huge religious gathering to be held legally since Israel lifted nearly all restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic. The country has seen cases plummet since launching one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns late last year.

Health authorities had nevertheless warned against holding such a large gathering.

But when the celebrations started, the Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, police chief Yaakov Shabtai and other top officials visited the event and met with police, who had deployed 5,000 extra forces to maintain order.

Ohana, a close ally of Netanyahu, thanked police for their hard work and dedication “for protecting the well-being and security for the many participants” as he wished the country a happy holiday.

Netanyahu is struggling to form a governing coalition ahead of a Tuesday deadline, and the national tragedy is sure to complicate those efforts.

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