Stampede at Israel Religious Celebration Kills at Least 44

JERUSALEM — A stampede early Friday at a mountainside religious celebration in Israel that drew tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews left at least 44 people dead and scores more injured.

By some estimates, about 100,000 people were crammed together late Thursday to celebrate a holiday on Mount Meron in northern Israel, despite warnings from the authorities about the risk of Covid-19 transmission.

The deadly crush began around 1 a.m. on Friday, as celebrants began to pour out of a section of a compound where festivities were being held. The death toll of 44, released later by the Health Ministry, made it one of the worst civilian disasters in Israeli history.

Magen David Adom, the national ambulance service, said early Friday that it had treated 150 injured people. It posted a video on Twitter that showed a fleet of ambulances, red sirens flashing, waiting to evacuate the wounded.

“A terrible disaster,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said. Jake Sullivan, President Biden’s national security adviser, and Emanuele Giaufret, the European Union’s ambassador, offered condolences on Twitter to families of the victims.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews traditionally gather at Mount Meron for the holiday, Lag b’Omer, to dance and make bonfires around the tomb of a prominent rabbi from antiquity. Critics have warned for years that the site’s patchy infrastructure cannot safely handle large crowds.

A video said to have been taken right before the stampede on Friday showed a mass of people in ecstatic celebration, moving in unison to the music.

Early accounts of what led to the stampede varied.

Initial reports indicated that a grandstand had collapsed. But as details emerged, it appeared that the crush had occurred after celebrants slipped on stone steps leading into a narrow passageway with a metal-floored slope, setting off what the news site Ynet described as a “human avalanche.”

One of the injured, Chaim Vertheimer, said that the slope had become slippery from spilled water and grape juice.

“For some reason there was sudden pressure at this point and people stopped, but more people kept coming down,” Mr. Vertheimer told Ynet, speaking from his hospital bed in the holy city of Safed. “People were not breathing. I remember hundreds of people screaming ‘I can’t breathe’.”

Some rescue workers attributed the tragedy to the sheer volume of people who had gathered at Mount Meron. Television images from the scene showed shoes, hats, plastic bottles and other debris littering the passageway after it was evacuated. A metal hand rail, meant to help people steady themselves as they walked down the slippery slope, had collapsed.

The site around the rabbi’s tomb had been divided into separate sections in an apparent effort to contain and control the crowds. But as the death toll climbed on Friday morning, questions arose about poor planning and possible negligence.

Footage shot as the disaster unfolded showed police officers trying to stop people from fleeing the scene. That could have been because the officers did not immediately realize the extent of the danger, or because they wanted to prevent the stampede from spilling into other areas of the compound.

Television images also showed a side door in the evacuated passageway that had been locked shut.

Amir Ohana, the minister of public security from Mr. Netanyahu’s Likud party, who oversees the police, had been at the event earlier on Thursday evening. After the stampede, he wrote on Twitter that the police chief was on his way to the scene.

Eli Levy, a spokesman for the police, said an investigation was underway but that it was too early to apportion blame or speak of negligence. He also cautioned against drawing conclusions from isolated video clips. Mr. Levy added that despite calls to evacuate the mountain, some celebrants had refused to leave or tried to make their way back.

On Thursday, before the stampede, the Israeli police said they had arrested two people for disrupting officers’ efforts to keep order at the site. But the crowd was so vast, the police said, that they could not make people obey coronavirus restrictions.

However it unfolded, by the time the stampede was over, a scene of joy had transformed into one of horror.

One eyewitness likened it to a war zone, telling Channel 12 TV that he had seen the bodies of two dead children. Images from the disaster scene showed bodies on stretchers, covered with foil blankets.

The disaster’s aftermath was chaotic in part because the cellular phone network in the area collapsed, leaving parents frantically searching for their children.

Amid the chaos, as medics tried to reach the injured, prominent Israeli rabbis remained onstage, trying to restore calm by reading psalms for the wounded.

The annual gathering on Mount Meron, which is in the Galilee, takes place near the mystical city of Safed. The Lag b’Omer holiday is linked in Jewish tradition to the Bar Kokhba revolt against the Romans in the first century A.D.

Each year, large numbers of ultra-Orthodox and traditional Jews make the pilgrimage to the mountain for days of festivities. They light bonfires around the grave site of a second-century sage, Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, in the hope that they will receive his blessings on the anniversary of his death.

The pilgrimage was held this year despite warnings from Israeli health officials that it could become a Covid-19 superspreader event. That is what appears to have happened in India this month when a vast Hindu celebration was permitted to take place.

Last year, the Israeli authorities arrested over 300 people at the Lag b’Omer celebration after large crowds gathered in defiance of coronavirus restrictions, ignoring police checkpoints on roads. Some were reported to have thrown stones and other objects at police officers who tried to control the crowd.

About 56 percent of the Israeli population had been fully vaccinated for Covid-19 as of Thursday, according to a New York Times database, and the country’s swift inoculation campaign and plummeting infection rates have allowed it to take rapid steps back toward normalcy. Earlier this month, Israel lifted its outdoor mask mandate and fully reopened schools for the first time since September.
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But there are still restrictions in place, and the gathering at Mount Meron on Thursday, though smaller than similar ones in recent years, was described as the largest in Israel since the start of the pandemic. Buses were still making their way to the mountain when the deadly crush began, and thousands more people had been expected to arrive on Friday.

Isabel Kershner reported from Jerusalem, Eric Nagourney from New York and Mike Ives from Hong Kong.

Irit Pazner Garshowitz contributed reporting from Jerusalem.