• Reuters

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Dozens of people were killed in a crush at a religious bonfire festival in Israel on Friday, medics said, in what Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has described as a “heavy disaster.”

Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews had gathered at the Mount Meron tomb of the 2nd-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai for annual Lag B’Omer commemorations, which include all-night prayer and dance.

The ecstatic crowds congregated despite warnings by health officials to avoid presenting COVID-19 risks. Witnesses said they realized people had been asphyxiated or trampled when an organizer appealed over a loudhailer for the throng 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.”

The Lag B’Omer event at Mount Meron is thought to have been one of the largest gatherings of people — certainly in Israel and perhaps farther afield — since the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic more than a year ago.

The Magen David Adom ambulance service said 103 people had been injured, dozens fatally. Channel 12 put the number of dead at 38. Police shut down the site and ordered revelers out. Military helicopters took casualties to hospitals.

The tomb is considered to be one of the holiest sites in the Jewish world and is an annual pilgrimage site.

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, while police and paramedics tried to reach the wounded.

Bodies lay on stretchers in a corridor, covered in foil blankets.

On Twitter, Netanyahu called it a “heavy disaster” and added: “We are all praying for the wellbeing of the casualties.”

Private bonfires at Mount Meron were banned last year due to COVID-19 restrictions, but lockdown measures were eased this year amid Israel’s rapid vaccination program that has seen more than 50% of the population fully vaccinated.

Police said on Thursday that they had arrested two people for disrupting officers’ efforts to keep order at the site.

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