A stampede broke out early Friday at a Jewish bonfire festival at the foot of Mount Meron in northern Israel, killing dozens of mostly ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and sending about 150 more to hospitals. An estimated 100,000 people had packed into the Galilee tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd century sage and mystic, for the annual Lag B'Omer festival. It isn't clear yet what sparked the stampede. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a "heavy disaster" and tweeted that he's "praying for the wellbeing of the casualties."
Reports varied on the number fatalities, from nearly 40 to at least 44, and witnesses told Israel's Channel 12 that children are among the dead. The incident ranks among the deadliest civilian casualty events in Israeli history, alongside a 2010 forest fire, The Associated Press reports. The Lag B'Omer celebration was the largest public gathering since Israel lifted COVID-19 restrictions, and the government had allowed it to go on despite warnings from public health officials. Eli Beer, director of the Hatzalah rescue service, said the site could safely handle only about a quarter of the crowd gathered Friday.