Dozens killed in stampede at religious gathering in Israel

JERUSALEM – Dozens of people were killed and dozens more injured in an onslaught on a Jewish religious gathering in northern Israel, in which tens of thousands of people attended, Israel’s main rescue service said early Friday.

Magen David Adom tweeted that dozens were dead and that at least 10 people were being treated in critical condition after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “major disaster”. Israeli media had previously reported that a grandstand had collapsed, but ambulance services said all injuries occurred in a rush.

The incident happened late at night and there have been conflicting reports as to whether a bleacher has fallen.

Tens of thousands of people gathered at the foot of Mount Meron to celebrate Lag BaOmer, a Jewish holiday in honor of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a sage and mystic from the 2nd century who is buried there.

The tomb is considered one of the holiest sites in the Jewish world and is an annual pilgrimage site.

Videos posted on social media showed chaotic scenes as ultra-Orthodox men climbed through gaps in torn corrugated iron sheets to escape the crush while police and paramedics tried to reach the wounded.

The bodies were lying on stretchers in a corridor that was completely covered with foil blankets.

Describing the situation as a “disaster” on Twitter, Netanyahu added: “We all pray for the welfare of the victims.”

The gathering was held despite health officials who feared the crowd could pose a COVID-19 risk.

Private bonfires on Mount Meron were banned last year due to coronavirus restrictions, but lockdown measures were eased this year as part of Israel’s COVID-19 Rapid Vaccination Program, which fully vaccinated more than 50 percent of the population.

Police said Thursday they had arrested two people for disrupting officers’ efforts to maintain order at the construction site.

It was the first major religious gathering of its kind legally held since Israel lifted almost all restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic. Since the start of one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns at the end of last year, cases have decreased.

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