Deadly stampede at religious gathering in Israel kills 45, injures dozens
2 Canadians are among the dead after festive gathering at Mount Meron ended in disaster
A stampede at a religious festival attended by tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in northern Israel killed at least 45 people and injured about 150 early Friday, medical officials said. It was one of the country's deadliest civilian disasters.
By Friday night, 32 victims had been identified. Israeli media earlier published a partial list that included a nine-year-old boy, a pair of brothers, 12 and 14, and a father of 11 children. An unknown number of American citizens, two Canadians and an Argentinian were also among the dead.
The stampede began when large numbers of people trying to exit the site thronged a narrow, tunnel-like passage, according to witnesses and video footage. People began falling on top of each other near the end of the walkway, as they descended slippery metal stairs, witnesses said.
One of the injured, Avraham Leibe, told Israeli public broadcaster Kan that a crush of people trying to descend the mountain caused "general bedlam" on a slippery metal slope followed by stairs. "Nobody managed to halt," he said from a hospital bed. "I saw one after the other fall."
Video footage showed large numbers of people, most of them black-clad ultra-Orthodox men, squeezed in the tunnel. The Haaretz daily quoted witnesses as saying police barricades had prevented people from exiting quickly.
WATCH | Dozens injured at Israeli religious gathering:
The stampede occurred during the celebrations of Lag BaOmer at Mount Meron, the first mass 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.
'One of the worst disasters,' says PM
Lag BaOmer draws tens of thousands of people, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, 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.
This year, media estimated the crowd at about 100,000 people.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who briefly visited Mount Meron around midday Friday, said it was "one of the worst disasters that has befallen the state of Israel" and offered condolences to the families. He said Sunday would be a day of national mourning.
Netanyahu was jeered by dozens of ultra-Orthodox protesters, who blamed the government and police for the tragedy.
Velvel Brevda, a rabbi who witnessed the stampede, accused police of putting up barriers that had prevented people from leaving through exits that were usually open in past years.
"Where should we leave from?" he said. "And the officers who were there couldn't care less."
Brevda said the government was responsible for the deaths of "beautiful holy Jews that were killed here for no reason whatsoever, just to prove a point that [the government is] in charge of this place instead of the Orthodox Jews being in charge."
At least 45 people were killed, according to the Israeli Health Ministry, with four people still in critical condition. In the immediate aftermath of the stampede, rescue workers collected the bodies, wrapped them in white covers and laid them side by side on the ground at the site.
Bodies were later taken to Israel's central forensic institute for identification, where distraught families waited to identify their loved ones. Israel's Army Radio said some 40 people remained unaccounted for.
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 at Mount Meron exceeded the 44 people killed in a 2010 forest fire. That had previously been believed to be the deadliest civilian tragedy in the country's history.
Police launch internal investigation
Zaki Heller, spokesperson for the Magen David Adom rescue service, said 150 people had been hurt in the stampede.
Heller told Israel Army Radio that "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 justice ministry said the police's internal investigations department was launching a probe into possible criminal misconduct by officers.
Experts have long warned that the Mount Meron celebrations were ripe for disaster due to the crowded conditions, large fires and hot weather. In a 2008 report, the state comptroller, a watchdog government office, warned conditions at the site, including escape routes, "endanger the public."
The deadly stampede is expected to have political reverberations at a time of great uncertainty following an inconclusive March election, the fourth in two years.
Netanyahu has so far been unsuccessful in forming a governing coalition, and his time for doing so runs out early next week. His political rivals, including former allies bent on ending his 12-year rule, will then get a chance to try to cobble together an alliance from a patchwork of left-wing, centrist and hawkish parties.
Netanyahu needs the continued support of ultra-Orthodox parties, his long-time allies, if he hopes to stay in power.
Israeli media reported Friday that earlier this month, Netanyahu assured ultra-Orthodox politicians in a meeting that the Lag BaOmer celebrations would take place with few limitations. The reports said this decision was supported by cabinet ministers and police, despite objections by health officials who warned of a risk of renewed coronavirus infections.