Dozens Killed in Crush at Religious Festival
At least 44 people have been killed in a stampede at a religious festival in the north-east of Israel.
The national emergency service Magen David Adom (MDA) said dozens more had been wounded at the Lag B'Omer festival, at the foot of Mount Meron.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described it as a "heavy disaster" and said he was praying for the casualties.
Tens of thousands reportedly attended, making it the largest event in Israel since the coronavirus pandemic began.
Dozens of ambulances attended the scene and emergency services laid out bodies under foil covers on the ground. Police asked everyone at the site to evacuate.
Emergency officials said 38 people were in critical condition at the site, with six more critically injured but evacuated and scores more wounded less seriously.
"MDA is fighting for the lives of dozens wounded, and will not give up until the last victim is evacuated," a tweet read.
What's the latest?
Early reports suggested a structure at the site collapsed, but MDA officials later said it was the result of a stampede. Police sources told Haaretz that it started after some attendees slipped on some steps, causing dozens more to fall.
"It happened in a split second; people just fell, trampling each other. It was a disaster," a witness told the newspaper.
Videos posted online show thousands of people tightly packed together for the event, before struggling to flee the chaos as the incident unfolded.
One pilgrim reportedly thought there was a bomb alert when loudhailer messages were heard urging the crowds to disperse.
"No one imagined that this could happen here," the man told Channel 12 TV. "Rejoicing became mourning, a great light became a deep darkness."
Yanki Farber, a reporter with Orthodox Jewish website Behadrei Haredim described it as a "big disaster".
"Over a thousand people together tried to go down a very, very small place, very narrow road and they just fell on top of each other," he told the BBC.
Earlier in the day officials said they were not able to enforce coronavirus restrictions at the site due to the huge crowds.
Police reportedly said they had arrested two people for disrupting their efforts to keep order before the stampede occurred.
What is the Lag
Tens of thousands of Orthodox Jews make a pilgrimage to Meron each year for Lag B'Omer, an annual religious holiday marked with all-night bonfires, prayer and dancing.
The town is the site of the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second-century sage, and is considered to be one of the holiest sites in the Jewish world.
According to the Times of Israel, organisers estimated that 100,000 people arrived on Thursday night, with more due to arrive on Friday.
Last year's celebration was restricted, but Israel's successful vaccination programme - one of the fastest in the world - has allowed it to lift many restrictions in recent months.
Authorities had authorised 10,000 people to gather at the site of the tomb but organisers said more than 650 buses had been chartered from across the country, bringing at least 30,000 pilgrims to Mount Meron.
“There is no question that there were an enormous number of people at this very significant religious event…and certainly the videos bear that out.”
About 5,000 police had been deployed to secure the event, the country’s largest public gathering during the coronavirus pandemic.
The ecstatic crowds congregated despite warnings by health officials to avoid presenting COVID-19 risks.