Religious festival stampede in Israel kills 45, hurts dozens

The deadly stampede was also bound to have political reverberations at a time of great uncertainty following an inconclusive March election, the fourth in two years.
Friday 30/04/2021
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the site of an overnight stampede during an ultra-Orthodox religious gathering in the northern Israeli town of Meron, on April 30, 2021. (AP)
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the site of an overnight stampede during an ultra-Orthodox religious gathering in the northern Israeli town of Meron, on April 30, 2021. (AP)

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

The stampede 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.

Video footage showed large numbers of people, most of them black-clad ultra-Orthodox men, squeezed in the tunnel. Initial reports and witnesses said police barricades had prevented people from exiting quickly.

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

Lag BaOmer draws tens of thousands of people, most of them ultra-Orthodox Jews, each year to honor Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd century sage and mystic who is believed to be 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.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who briefly visited Mount Meron around midday 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.

Netanyahu was jeered by dozens of ultra-Orthodox protesters, who blamed the government and police for the tragedy.

At least 45 people were killed, according to the Israeli health ministry, with four people remaining in a critical condition. In the immediate aftermath of the stampede, rescue workers collected the bodies, wrapped them in white covers and laid them side by side on the ground at the site.

Zaki Heller, spokesman for the Magen David Adom rescue service, said 150 people had been hurt in the stampede.

The Justice Ministry said the police’s internal investigations department was launching a probe into possible criminal misconduct by officers.

Political fallout

The deadly stampede was also bound to have political reverberations at a time of great uncertainty following an inconclusive March election, the fourth in two years.

Netanyahu has so far been unsuccessful in forming a governing coalition, and his time for doing so runs out early next week. His political rivals, including former allies bent on ending his 12-year rule, will then get a chance to try to cobble together an alliance from a patchwork of left-wing, centrist and hawkish parties.

Netanyahu needs the continued support of ultra-Orthodox parties, his long-time allies, if he wants to keep faint hopes alive of staying in power.

Israeli media reported Friday that earlier this month, Netanyahu assured ultra-Orthodox politicians in a meeting that the Lag BaOmer celebrations would take place with few limitations.

The reports said this decision was supported by cabinet ministers and police, despite objections from health officials who warned of a risk of renewed coronavirus infections.

Last year, observances on Mount Meron were limited due to the pandemic.

At the start of this year’s celebrations, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, police chief Yaakov Shabtai and other top officials visited the event and met police, who had deployed 5,000 extra officers to maintain order.