Dozens of people have died in a crush at a Lag Ba'Omer event in northern Israel, in what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described as a "heavy disaster".
At least 44 people died, the Magen David Adom rescue service and a hospital source said. Witnesses said the dead included children. Zaki Heller, spokesman for the Magen David Adom rescue service, said 150 people had been hospitalised, with six in critical condition.
“We have 38 dead at the scene but there are more at the hospital,” an MDA spokesman said, while a source at the northern Ziv hospital said they had received at least six fatalities.
Videos posted on social media showed chaotic scenes as Ultra-Orthodox men clambered through gaps in sheets of torn corrugated iron to escape the crush, as police and paramedics tried to reach the wounded.
Bodies lay on stretchers in a corridor, completely covered in foil blankets.
The ecstatic crowds congregated despite warnings by health officials to avoid presenting COVID-19 risks. Witnesses said people were asphyxiated or trampled in a passageway, some going unnoticed until the PA system sounded an appeal to disperse.
“We thought maybe there was a (bomb) alert over a suspicious package. No one imagined that this could happen here. Rejoicing became mourning, a great light became a deep darkness,” a pilgrim who gave his name as Yitzhak told Channel 12 TV.
“Rabbi Shimon used to say that he could absolve the world ... If he didn’t manage to cancel this edict on the very day of his exaltation, then we need to do real soul-searching.”
Police shut down the site and ordered revellers to be evacuated by bus. The Transportation Ministry halted roadworks in the area to enable ambulances and pilgrims’ buses to move unhindered. Military helicopters ferried some casualties to hospitals.
The tomb is considered to be one of the holiest sites in the Jewish world and it is an annual pilgrimage site.
On Twitter, Netanyahu called it a “heavy disaster” and added: “We are all praying for the wellbeing of the casualties.” The gathering had been held in defiance of health officials who had worries that crowding could pose a COVID-19 risk.
The sheer number of people at the annual Mount Meron event – a reported 100,000 – made it difficult for emergency services to operate.
Footage from the event posted on YouTube showed the challenge facing the emergency services.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews were gathered at the tomb of a 2nd-century sage for annual commemorations that include all-night prayer and dance. The event is scheduled to continue until noon on Friday.
Private bonfires at Mount Meron were banned last year due to coronavirus restrictions, but lockdown measures were eased this year amid Israel’s rapid COVID-19 vaccination programme that has seen more than 50 of the population fully vaccinated.