A stampede during a Jewish religious festival in Israel killed at least 45 people. The incident occurred at the yearly Lag B’Omer holiday celebration in the town of Meron in northern Israel. Attendees slipped on a narrow metal walkway as thousands were leaving just after midnight of April 30, causing people to panic and triggering the stampede. Aside from the 45 deaths, 150 others reported injuries following the event.
The tragedy happened during the Orthodox Jewish festival of Lag B’Omer, which commemorated the 2nd-century sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai. His tomb was located on Mount Meron, also in the eponymous town. The sage’s tomb is a pilgrimage site for Orthodox Jews, which many visit during the festival.
Only 10,000 people were supposed to attend the celebration at Mount Meron. However, reports said that the number of attendees was ten times that number. Israeli health officials warned against mass gatherings despite the dwindling number of new Wuhan coronavirus infections there.
This year’s Lag B’Omer festival saw thousands of pilgrims flocking to the Jewish holy site. It was the largest gathering in Israel since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020. The festival coincided with Israel achieving herd immunity following its mass immunization program. Furthermore, it happened alongside the loosening of coronavirus-related measures – such as masks no longer being made mandatory.
Israeli news website Ynet reported that according to Israeli law enforcement, some attendees had slipped while traversing a narrow metal walkway – the only exit path from the site. This slip caused a number of people to panic and rush to leave immediately in a “domino effect”. The wave of people rushing to leave caused a bottleneck at the tunnel – leading to bodies piling up. Furthermore, a number of witnesses claimed police officers blocked the exit.
The Times of Israel reported that Israel Police Northern District Commander Shimon Lavi took responsibility for the disaster. He oversaw security arrangements during the festivities at Mount Meron. Speaking to reporters hours after the incident, Lavi said: “I bear overall responsibility, for better or worse, and am ready for any investigation.”
While Lavi admitted that the walkway was dangerous, he remarked that the exact cause for the stampede remained unclear. The Times report noted that the metal-floored path had been criticized as a dangerous potential bottleneck for some time now.
Emergency response organization United Hatzalah CEO Eli Pollack described the narrow exit at Mount Meron as a “death trap.” United Hatzalah President Eli Beer added that young children were among the victims of the stampede. “To my sorrow, we found small children who had been crushed. [We] tried to resuscitate [some of] them and managed, in a few cases, to save them,” he said.
Some witnesses also shared their experiences during the stampede. A survivor named David said: “Our bodies were swept along by themselves. People were thrown up in the air, others were crushed on the ground.” Another survivor named Meir suffered injuries during the stampede. He told Ynet that “it felt like an eternity” with dead bodies all around once the chaos stopped.
Others were not as fortunate as the two survivors. The stampede claimed the lives of two pairs of siblings – Yosef and Moshe Elhadad from Northern Israel and Moshe and Joshua Englander from Jerusalem. All four were younger than 19 years old at the time of death. Three pilgrims from other countries also died in the stampede – Americans Yosef Amram and Eliezer Tzvi Yoza’af and Canadian rabbi and singer Shragee Gestetner.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the Lag B’Omer tragedy as a “heavy disaster.” He added: “Everyone is praying for the recovery of the injured.” A probe has been launched into the stampede’s origins, with investigators being sent to Meron to obtain evidence. The stampede joins the list of the worst peacetime tragedies in Israeli history – with a death toll matching that of the Mount Carmel forest fire 11 years prior.
The tragedy occurred almost two weeks after Israel announced that face masks would no longer be required outdoors. Haaretz reported on April 15 that the Israeli Ministry of Health had lifted mandatory face mask regulations for outdoor settings starting April 18. Israelis would still be required to mask up indoors, however.
Around 5,000 police officers were deployed to Mount Meron to secure the event. However, the mere fact that pilgrims who attended the festival numbered more than the 10,000 limit implied that police had not moved to impose restrictions. “It’s shocking how many people were allowed to enter,” Beer commented. (Related: London police break up Good Friday mass for supposedly violating coronavirus regulations.)
Speaking to Army Radio, Israeli Health Ministry Public Health Services Head Sharon Alroy-Preis said the disaster was actually preventable. Had Israeli police implemented a limit on the number of attendees at Mount Meron, the stampede would not have occurred. “The number of people allowed to gather outside is restricted to 100 – [and] it is the responsibility of the police to enforce the laws,” she said. Alroy-Preis earlier warned that mass gatherings for the Lag B’Omer festival could become a super-spreader event.
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