At least 44 dead at Lag B’Omer event in northern Israel

What happened: Tens of ultra-Orthodox Hasidic Jews have died in a stampede at the Lag B’Omer festival on Mt. Meron last night.

  • There are conflicting reports into the exact number of deaths, with Kan Radio News saying least 44 people were killed and 150 people, including children, were injured, of which six are in critical condition, 18 are in serious condition, eight are in moderate condition and the rest are in light condition
  • The Magen David Adom (MDA) rescue service said 38 people had been killed at the scene. It said its paramedics treated dozens of people, including 18 in a serious condition, 2 who were moderately hurt, and 80 lightly injured. Many others are suffering from shock.
  • Early reports suggested a structure at the site collapsed, but MDA officials later said the deaths were caused by a stampede. Witnesses said that celebrants had tripped on stairs that causing a crushing domino effect. Others said the police did not block the passage to the compound, allowing people to stream inside and in the panic, many were crushed.
  • The injured were taken by ambulance and helicopters to hospitals in northern Israel. The Home Front Command rescue unit, Northern Command medical teams and Air Force helicopters with medical teams helped with the evacuation and treatment.
  • Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called the incident a “terrible disaster”. He also sent encouraging messages to the rescue forces, who are still working at the scene.
  • Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid said: “I follow with concern pain and anxiety the terrible disaster that occurred during the revelry in Meron. The whole of Israel is now praying for the healing of the injured. This is a difficult and sad night.”
  • UK Ambassador to Israel Neil Wigan tweeted: “Deeply saddened by the terrible tragedy at Mount Meron last night. My thoughts are with the families and friends of those who lost their lives. May their memories be blessed.”

Context: Thousands of Orthodox Jews make a pilgrimage to Mt. Meron each year for Lag B’Omer, an annual religious holiday marked with all-night bonfires, prayer, and dancing. The tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second-century sage, is considered to be one of the holiest sites in the Jewish world.

  • The assessment in the police is that over 100,000 people attended at the festival.
  • One member of the Knesset, Itamar Ben Gvir of the Religious Zionist Party, was at the festival and told Israeli media that the congestion on Mt. Meron was worse than in previous years because the event had been shortened to accommodate for the start of the Sabbath today. He also called for an independent investigation into the disaster.
  • Videos and images from social media of the event showed tens of thousands of people in the makeshift arena, dancing and jumping up and down on the stands to music.
  • One emergency rescue officer speaking at a field hospital described the scene as “chaotic” with mobile phones not working and many parents separated from their children.
  • One survivor told Ynet: “We were going in to see the bonfire lighting, suddenly there was a wave coming out. Our bodies were swept along by themselves. People were thrown up in the air, others were crushed on the ground.”
  • Around 5,000 police officers were deployed at the event. Health Ministry officials had urged Israelis not to travel to Mt. Meron as the festivities could lead to mass coronavirus contagion.

Looking ahead: The police have begun to investigate the disaster under the supervision of Police Commissioner Insp. Gen. Yaakov Shabtai.

  • The Northern District Police Chief, Maj.-Gen. Shimon Lavie said this morning: “We are in the process of gathering evidence to get to the truth. There are videos that have nothing to do with reality. Police have saved lives here.” He added: “I’ll put things on the table, I, Shimon Lavie, the commander of the Israel Police Northern District, bear full responsibility, for better and worse.”
  • The Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department is opening a probe into possible police negligence in the tragedy on Mt. Meron. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit noted that testimony won’t be taken from police officers who were present at the scene at this stage.

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