At least 45 people have died in a stampede at a Jewish religious festival in northern Israel, health authorities said on Friday.
Dozens more wounded people were taken to six different hospitals, the Health Ministry said on Friday morning. Some 150 people were injured according to Magen David Adom rescue group.
Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu travelled to the site in the town of Meron where he met police and others involved in rescue efforts.
Netanyahu announced a full investigation into the events.
He called the stampede one of the greatest disasters to befall the state of Israel and expressed sympathy to the families of the victims and wished those who were injured a full recovery.
Thousands of worshippers had been celebrating the Jewish holiday of Lag Baomer in the town of Meron, and earlier videos on social media showed people singing and dancing.
Authorities had capped the number of people allowed at 10,000, but media reports indicated up to 10 times that number may have travelled there.
A man who was injured said from Rambam Hospital said that some 500 people had been crowded into a section that normally had space for about 50 people.
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A spokesman for rescue group Magen David Adom spokesman called the events an “inconceivable catastrophe.”
His comments were echoed by a spokesman for Israel’s emergency rescue service Zaka, who called the stampede a “national catastrophe.”
“It is an unbearable incident,” Motti Buckchin told Israeli news site ynet.
Police have launched an investigation into what happened.
“It was a terrible, tragic night,” police chief Shimon Lavi told reporters on Friday morning.
Lavi said security forces had prepared thoroughly for the celebration. “Security came first,” he said.
He said many police officers had saved lives while putting themselves in danger, and warned against misinformation on social media, adding that he was he was “ready for any test.”
Reports suggest the stampede began when people started to slide on a sloping ramp with a metal floor and corrugated metal partitions on both sides, causing the densely packed revellers to fall over each other. Earlier reports said a stand had collapsed at the gathering.
Witnesses have accused the police of allowing people into a cordoned-off area even though it was already extremely crowded and of not opening the exits on either side quickly enough after people started panicking.
A spokesman for the Zaka rescue services said during the night that the scene was chaotic and many children had been separated from their parents, in comments to Israeli television.
Efforts are being made to reunite the families. President Reuven Rivlin’s office called for those seeking people who are missing to contact the presidential office. “We will make every effort to find them,” he said on Friday.
The rescue operation is proving so challenging that the army’s elite 669 unit has also been called in to help.
Messages of sympathy flowed in from around the world.
EU foreign affairs chief Josep Borrell said the European Union expressed its deepest condolences to the families and friends of the victims, as well as to the Israeli people, and wishes the injured a speedy recovery.
European Council President Charles Michel tweeted: “My thoughts are with the people of Israel in the wake of yesterday’s accident.
“We wish you strength and courage to get through these difficult times.”
German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier and the government sent their deepest condolences to Israel. Steinmeier called the catastrophe deeply shocking, in a letter to Rivlin.
“We share the grief of the families for these people,” said German government spokesperson Steffen Seibert. “Our thoughts also go out to the many injured in the hope that they can recover.”
Turkey said it is “saddened” by the reports, adding: “We offer our condolences to the Israeli people and government over this tragic incident and wish a speedy recovery to the injured.”
Netanyahu said Sunday would be a day of national mourning.
Lag Baomer is in part a commemoration of the Jewish uprising against Roman occupiers that started in the year 132 under rebel leader Bar Kokhba.
The burial place of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, who was involved in the uprising, is a pilgrimage site on Mount Meron that thousands visit every year on the holiday.
Lag Baomer is also said to be the date that an epidemic that killed many Jewish religious students ended.
Bonfires are traditionally lit on the holiday.
Last year, celebrations were severely restricted due to the coronavirus pandemic.
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