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Dozens dead in stampede at Jewish religious festival in Israel

JERUSALEM (AP) – The director of an Israeli ambulance service has confirmed that nearly 40 people have died in a stampede during a religious holiday in northern Israel.

Eli Beer, director of Hatzalah, said he was shocked at the size of the crowd during the Lag BaOmer celebrations at Mount Meron. Police reportedly said some 100,000 people were present.

He told Army Radio that there were four to five times as many people who should have walked into a place like this. “Almost 40 people died as a result of this tragedy,” he said.

THIS IS A SCALE INFORMATION EVENT. AP’s previous story is below.

A stampede erupted Friday morning at a Jewish religious rally attended by tens of thousands of people in northern Israel, leaving 150 hospitalized, authorities said. Israeli media reported that as many as 44 people were killed and published photos of rows of bodies.

The disaster occurred at Mount Meron during the main celebrations of Lag BaOmer, a public holiday where tens of thousands of people, mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, gather to honor Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a sage and mystic of the second century who is buried there. Large crowds traditionally light bonfires, pray and dance as part of the celebrations.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a “great tragedy” and said everyone was praying for the victims.

The incident happened after midnight and the cause of the stampede was not immediately clear. Videos circulating on social media showed large numbers of ultra-Orthodox Jews crammed into tight spaces.

A 24-year-old witness, identified only by his first name Dvir, told Army Radio that “masses of people were pushed into the same corner and a vortex was created.” He said a first row of people fell, and then a second row, where he was standing, also began to fall under the pressure of the stampede.

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

Zaki Heller, spokesperson for the Magen David Adom Rescue Service, said 150 people had been hospitalized and confirmed there had been a few deaths. Army radio, citing unnamed medical officials, said the death toll rose to 44.

Heller told the station “no one ever dreamed” that something like this could happen. “In an instant, we went from a happy event to a huge tragedy,” he said.

Photos from the scene showed rows of wrapped bodies.

The IDF said it had dispatched medics and search and rescue teams as well as helicopters to help with a “mass casualty incident” in the area. He did not provide details on the nature of the disaster.

It was the first large religious gathering to be held legally since Israel lifted nearly all restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic. The country has seen cases drop since one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns launched late last year.

The health authorities had nevertheless warned against the holding of such a gathering.

But when the celebrations began, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, Police Chief Yaakov Shabtai and other senior officials visited the event and met with the police, who had deployed 5,000 additional forces to maintain the order.

Ohana, a close ally of Netanyahu, thanked the police for their hard work and dedication “to protect the well-being and safety of the many participants” by wishing the country happy holidays.

Netanyahu is struggling to form a ruling coalition before Tuesday’s deadline, and national tragedy is sure to complicate those efforts.

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