A stampede at a religious festival attended by tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in northern Israel killed at least 44 people and injured some 150 others early Friday, medical officials said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the incident as "a great tragedy" and "one of the heaviest disasters to befall the state of Israel". He declared Sunday as "a national day of mourning."
"Let us all united with the grief of the families and a prayer for the peace of the wounded," he wrote on Twitter after visiting the scene. He also promised a "thorough, serious and in-depth investigation".
The stampede occurred during the celebrations for Lag BaOmer at Mount Meron. Tens of thousands of people, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, gather each year to honour Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd century sage and mystic who is buried there. Large crowds traditionally light bonfires, pray and dance as part of the celebrations.
Media estimated the crowd at about 100,000 people, and videos posted on social media showed scores of black-clad ultra-Orthodox men walking through narrow passages to the site.
'I felt like I was about to die'
Photos showed rows of wrapped bodies lying on the ground afterward, with dozens of ambulances at the site. The Haaretz daily quoted witnesses as saying police barricades had prevented people from exiting quickly.
Eli Beer, director of the Hatzalah rescue service, said he was horrified by how crowded the event was, saying the site was equipped to handle perhaps a quarter of the number who were there. “Close to 40 people died as a result of this tragedy,” he told the Army radio station.
By Friday morning, Zaka, another ambulance service, said the death toll had risen to 44. Spokesman Motti Bukchin said families were being notified and the bodies were being taken to a single location for identification.
In a race against time, funerals were to be held before sundown Friday, the start of the Jewish Sabbath when burials do not take place.
The death toll matched the number of people killed in a 2010 forest fire, which is believed to be the deadliest civilian tragedy in the country’s history.
The stampede happened after midnight and its cause was not immediately clear. Witnesses said a row of people had tripped on some stairs, causing other people to fall and sparking the stampede.
“Masses of people were pushed into the same corner and a vortex was created,” a witness, identified only by his first name Dvir, told Army radio. He described a terrifying sight as the first row of people fell down. He said he was in the next row of people that tripped.
“I felt like I was about to die,” he said.
Zaki Heller, spokesman for the Magen David Adom rescue service, said 150 people had been hospitalized, with six in critical condition.
Heller told the station “no one had ever dreamed” something like this could happen. “In one moment, we went from a happy event to an immense tragedy,” he said.
The Israeli military said it had dispatched medics and search and rescue teams along with helicopters to assist.
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.
World leaders and politicians have sent condolence messages to Israel on social media following the stampede.
"My thoughts are with the people of Israel in the wake of yesterday’s accident at Mount Meron," tweeted European Council President, Charles Michel.
"We wish you strength and courage to get through these difficult times," he added.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said in a message addressed to Netanyahu that she learnt of the incident "with great dismay."
"I would like to convey my deepest sympathy to the relatives of the victims of this terrible tragedy, and I wish the injured a speedy and complete recovery," she added.
"Devastating scenes at the Lag B'Omer festival in Israel," tweeted UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson.
"My thoughts are with the Israeli people and those who have lost loved ones in this tragedy."
A French Foreign Ministry spokesperson said they were "deeply shocked".
"France extends its sincere condolences to the families and close friends of those killed in this tragedy and wishes the injured a speedy recovery. It assures the Israeli people of its wholehearted solidarity at this extremely difficult time," they added.
The White House National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, has further stated that the "hearts" of the United States go out to Israel after the "terrible tragedy".