Jerusalem: Overcrowding at a Jewish religious gathering in Mount Meron in northern Israel killed at least 44 people and injured 150 others. The tragedy happened during the festival celebrated every year on the eve of the Jewish holiday 'Lag BaOmer'-an annual religious holiday marked with all-night bonfires, prayer and dancing.
According to local media reports, at least one lakh people, most of them ultra-Orthodox Jews, participated in the festival this time at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, making it the largest event held in Israel since the coronavirus pandemic broke out last year.
"A heavy disaster on Mount Meron. We are all praying for the healing of the injured. I want to strengthen the rescue crews operating there." reacted Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Twitter
Israeli President Reuven Rivlin also tweeted, "In-great concern I follow the reports from Meron and pray for the healing of the wounded. May God heal them."
It was first speculated that the tragedy was caused by the collapse of a stand, but Israeli ambulance service Magen David Adom (MDA) later said that it was caused by crowding.
"Our paramedics have treated hundreds of people, including several in serious condition. All the wounded were evacuated to hospital", he said.
The MDA added that the wounded were evacuated, some of them by helicopters, to four hospitals in northern Israel and Jerusalem. United Hatzalah emergency medical service said that dozens of resuscitations were carried out at the site by the organisation's volunteers.
MDA Director-General Eli Bin told the Ynet news site that the wounded were being evacuated to the Ziv hospital in Safed, the Galilee Medical Center in Nahariya, Rambam hospital in Haifa, Poriya hospital in Tiberias, and Hadassah Ein Kerem hospital in Jerusalem.
Firefighters worked to free the trapped, supported by Israeli Air Force helicopters and rescue services.
Israel recently eased mask-wearing requirements in open areas and other restrictions after the success of a massive vaccination drive that significantly brought down coronavirus-related cases.
The resulting "normalcy", with limitations, saw rejoicing crowds across Israel on Thursday evening with youngsters, especially school children, coming out in large numbers in open spaces putting bonfires that accompanied the Lag BaOmer festivities.
A preliminary police investigation revealed that some of the attendees slipped on the stairs, creating a "human avalanche" that crushed members of the crowd. Police were trying to clear the tens of thousands who attended the event from the area.
At around midnight on Thursday, organisers had estimated that some 100,000 people were at the site, with an additional 100,000 expected to arrive by Friday morning, local media reported. Some 5,000 police officers were said to have been deployed at the event.
A Times of Israel report published before the tragic incident said that the government failed to reach an agreement on how to handle the celebrations, with Prime Minister Netanyahu reportedly wary of angering Haredi (ultra-orthodox Jews) political parties by imposing restrictions.
"But police and health officials have instituted their own rules at the site to try to keep the pilgrims from congregating at close quarters for lengthy periods of time", the report had said.
Each year, hundreds of thousands of Jews - many of them ultra-Orthodox - flock to Bar Yochai's tomb site on Mount Meron, which lies in the Upper Galilee region of northern Israel, about 40 kilometres northeast of the city of Haifa. The town is the site of the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second-century sage, and is considered to be one of the holiest sites in the Jewish world.
The event is reported to be one of the worst peacetime tragedies in Israel's history, equaling the death toll from the 2010 Mount Carmel forest fire.