30 April 2021

Dozens killed in stampede at ultra-Orthodox religious festival in Israel

30 April 2021

A stampede at a religious festival attended by tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in northern Israel has killed at least 45 people and injured about 150, medical officials said.

One of the country’s deadliest civilian disasters began when large numbers of people thronged a narrow tunnel-like passage during the event, 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.

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 prevented people from exiting quickly.

The stampede occurred during 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 virus cases plummet since launching one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns late last year.

Lag BaOmer draws tens of thousands of people each year to honour Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second 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.

Israel Festival Stampede (AP)

Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who briefly visited Mount Meron on 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.

He 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 prevented people from leaving through exits that had been open in previous years.

“Where should we leave from?” he said. “And the officers who were there couldn’t care less.”

He 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 they’re in charge of this place instead of the Orthodox Jews being in charge.”

After the stampede, photos showed rows of wrapped bodies lying on the ground, with dozens of ambulances at the site.

In a race against time, funerals need to be held before sundown on Friday, the start of the Jewish Sabbath when burials do not take place.

At least 45 people were killed, according to the Health Ministry, with four remaining in critical condition

Zaki Heller, spokesman for the Magen David Adom rescue service, said 150 people had been admitted to hospital.

He 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 is launching a probe into possible criminal misconduct by officers.

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