Dozens killed in stampede at religious gathering in Israel

Dozens killed in stampede at religious gathering in Israel

JERUSALEM — Dozens of people were killed and dozens more were injured in a stampede at a Jewish religious gathering in northern Israel attended by tens of thousands of people, Israel’s main rescue service said early Friday.

Magen David Adom tweeted that dozens were dead and that it was treating at least 10 people in critical condition after what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called a “heavy disaster.” Israeli media had earlier reported that a grandstand collapsed, but the rescue service said all the injuries happened in a stampede.

The incident happened late at night and there were conflicting reports on whether a grandstand did fall.

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

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

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

Bodies lay on stretchers in a corridor, completely covered in foil blankets.

On Twitter, Netanyahu described the situation a “disaster” and added: “We are all praying for the wellbeing of the casualties.”

The gathering had been held in defiance of health officials who had worries that crowding could pose a COVID-19 risk.

Private bonfires at Mount Meron were banned last year due to coronavirus restrictions, but lockdown measures were eased this year amid Israel’s rapid COVID-19 vaccination program that has seen more than 50 percent of the population fully vaccinated.

Police said on Thursday that they had arrested two people for disrupting officers’ efforts to keep order at the site.

It was the first huge religious gathering of its kind 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.

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