VIDEO: Israel pilgrimage stampede kills at least 44 - GulfToday

VIDEO: Israel pilgrimage stampede kills at least 44

Israeli security officials and rescuers carry a body at Mt. Meron in northern Israel. AP

A massive stampede at a densely packed Jewish pilgrimage site killed at least 44 people in northern Israel on Friday, blackening the country's largest COVID-era gathering.

The nighttime disaster struck as tens of thousands of pilgrims were gathered in Meron at the site of the reputed tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second-century Talmudic sage, where mainly ultra-Orthodox Jews mark the Lag BaOmer holiday.

Closed last year due to coronavirus restrictions, this year's pilgrimage at which bonfires are lit was expected to be a celebratory event in a nation that has largely re-opened thanks to a successful vaccination effort.

It had been "a tragic night," Shimon Lavi, northern Israel's police commander, told reporters, adding his officers did all they could to save lives, helping to ferry the injured to hospital.

A young witness pointed a finger of blame at police.

"There is an iron ramp going down from the site of a bonfire... It was very crowded... people had to walk down on this ramp in order to exit," said Shmuel, an 18-year-old at the scene.

The police "closed it (the ramp). Then, more people arrived, and more and more... and police wouldn't let them exit, so people started to fall on top of each other", he said.

They "didn't open it (the passageway) until it crashed and all the crowd was blown away to the sides. Tens of people were crushed".

The pilgrimage was the largest public gathering since the pandemic broke out, with reports of three times more participants, including children, than authorised by police.

Related articles