Israel: First funerals take place after at least 45 killed in stampede at Lag BaOmer religious festival

How did a joyous celebration become such a terrible disaster? ITV News Senior International Correspondent John Irvine reports.

The first funerals have taken place after at least 45 people were killed in a stampede at a Jewish religious gathering in northern Israel.

Reports suggested up to 38 people were in critical conditions and 150 were hospitalised.

The disaster occurred after midnight on Friday at Mount Meron at the main celebrations of Lag BaOmer - a holiday when tens of thousands of people, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, gather to honour Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd century sage and mystic who is buried there.

This year, it is estimated there were 100,000 people in attendance.

A number of funerals were held before sunset on Friday, the start of the Jewish Sabbath when burials do not take place.

  • The moment ambulances arrive at a Jewish religious gathering in Israel after a stampede

Zaki Heller, spokesperson for Israeli rescue service Magen David Adom, said about 150 people were hospitalised in the stampede.

According to witnesses and video, the stampede began when large numbers of people thronged a narrow tunnel-like passage.

People began falling on top of each other near the end of the walkway, as they descended slippery metal stairs, witnesses said.

Israeli security officials and rescuers stand around the bodies of victims who died in the stampede Credit: Ishay Jerusalemite/Behadrei Haredim via AP

Ultra-Orthodox Jews who attended the event said police blocked off an important alleyway, leading to problems with the flow of people and ultimately, to the tragedy.

Velvel Brevda, a rabbi who witnessed the stampede, said the barriers put up by police prevented people from leaving through exits that were open in previous years.

“Where should we leave from?” he said. “And the officers who were there couldn't care less.”

He blamed the government for the deaths of “beautiful holy Jews that were killed here for no reason whatsoever, just to prove a point that they’re in charge of this place instead of the Orthodox Jews being in charge”.

Avraham Leibe, who was injured, told Israeli public broadcaster Kan a crowd trying to descend the mountain caused a “general bedlam” on a slippery metal slope followed by stairs.

“Nobody managed to halt,” he said from a hospital bed. “I saw one after the other fall.”

A 24-year-old witness, identified only by his first name Dvir, told the Army Radio station that “masses of people were pushed into the same corner and a vortex was created”.

Crowds at a Jewish religious gathering in northern Israel. Credit: Israel's Ministry of Religious Services and National Centre for Holy Places via AP

He said a first row of people fell down, and then a second row, where he was standing, also began to fall down from the pressure of the stampede.

“I felt like I was about to die,” he said.

Dozens of ultra-Orthodox Jews who had attended the event returned to the site of the tragedy on Friday to protest a visit by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahua. They chanted "killer".

Mr Netanyahu called the incident a “great tragedy” and said everyone was praying for the victims.

He said it was “one of the worst disasters that has befallen the state of Israel” and announced Sunday would be a day of national mourning.

The bodies of victims have been taken to Israel's central forensic pathology institute, where families can identify their loved ones.

Authorities are still trying to connect families with missing relatives.

In the hours between Thursday and Friday, mobile phone coverage around Mount Meron collapsed and emergency hotlines were overwhelmed with calls.

About 150 people were hospitalised in the crowd crush Credit: David Cohen/JINIPIX via AP

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson wrote on Twitter that his “thoughts are with the Israeli people and those who have lost loved ones in this tragedy”.

The European Union also conveyed its “deepest condolences to families and friends of the victims” and wished a speedy recovery to the injured.

Magen David Adom tweeted that it was treating 103 people, including 38 in critical condition. Israeli media had earlier reported that a grandstand collapsed, but the rescue service said all the injuries happened in a stampede.

The Israeli military said it dispatched medics and search and rescue teams along with helicopters to assist with a “mass casualty incident” in the area.

It was the first huge religious gathering to be held legally since Israel lifted nearly all restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Large crowds traditionally light bonfires as part of the celebrations.

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

The decision was said to be supported by Cabinet ministers and police, despite objections by health officials.

Following an inconclusive March election, Mr Netanyahu needs the support of ultra-Orthodox parties, who have been his long-time allies.

Prime Minister Netanyahu has been trying to form a coalition government, and his time for doing so runs out on Tuesday.

If he fails, his political rivals could unite to form an alliance with a mix of left-wing, centrist and hawkish parties.

The Justice Ministry said on Friday morning the police’s internal investigations department was investigating possible criminal misconduct by officers.

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

The country has seen cases plummet since launching one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns late last year.