JERUSALEM (AFP) - Israel on Friday (April 30) was burying victims of a stampede at a Jewish pilgrimage site that killed at least 45 people, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised an investigation into one of the nation's "worst disasters".
The nighttime carnage struck after pilgrims thronged to Meron at the site of the reputed tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a second-century Talmudic sage, where mainly ultra-Orthodox Jews, or haredim, mark the Lag BaOmer holiday.
The health ministry put the toll at 45 dead. The Magen David Adom rescue agency said an estimated 150 had been injured.
With families anxious to bury loved ones before the Shabbat break, funerals were held in Jerusalem and the mainly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, where haredi men in traditional long black coats lined the streets to mourn.
Shalom Levy, attending a funeral at a Jerusalem cemetary, called the stampede "a tragedy for the Jewish people".
Among the victims was 38-year Elazar Goldberg, whose father called on God to protect his children as his son was laid to rest in the Holy City.
The pilgrimage was the largest public gathering in Israel and possibly the world since the Covid-19 pandemic erupted early last year.
Officials had warned overcrowding could fuel viral spread and only authorised 10,000 to attend the tomb compound.
Israeli media outlets said 90,000 massed at the site, a figure that could not be immediately confirmed from official sources.
There were conflicting reports about what caused the deadly crush, but multiple witnesses said scores of people trampled each other as they moved through a narrow passage at the site.
"What happened here is heartbreaking. There were people crushed to death, including children," Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement following his visit.
The "Mount Meron disaster" was "one of the worst to hit" Israel since its foundation seven decades ago, he added, promising a "thorough, serious and in-depth investigation in order to ensure that such a disaster does not recur."
Closed last year due to coronavirus restrictions, this year's pilgrimage drew tens of thousands of people who were seen packed together joyfully singing, dancing and lighting bonfires before the deadly crush.
In a cruel irony, the BaOmer holiday celebrates the end of a plague that killed thousands of Talmudic students at the time of Rabbi Bar Yochai.
Some witnesses blamed police for not allowing people to exit through a ramp that could have allowed them to escape the crush.
The police "closed it (the ramp). Then, more people arrived, and more and more... and police wouldn't let them exit, so people started to fall on top of each other", Shmuel, 18, told AFP.
There were also indications that pilgrims sought to burst through iron sheet barricades as the choke-point formed.
"It took me back to the period of (Palestinian militant) bombings. There was chaos, people trying to save themselves as they crushed each other," Dov Maisel of the United Hatzala rescue services told army radio.
Northern Israel's police chief Shimon Lavi told AFP his officers had done all they could to save lives on a "tragic night", helping to ferry those injured to hospital.
Lavi told reporters he was prepared to assume "overall responsibility," as an official inquiry was launched.
Military and rescue service helicopters evacuated the wounded across the country.
Scenes from Meron hours after the accident showed an ultra-Orthodox Jewish crowd in distress, the men in long black coats and wearing black hats, and debris scattered across the ground.
Survivors lit candles for the victims while others prayed. A row of bodies covered in plastic bags lay on the ground.
Relatives of those affected were flocking to the National Centre of Forensic Medicine in Tel Aviv where victims were being identified.
Some voiced frustrations to reporters over delays as they pushed to claim bodies before Shabbat.
Israel has fully vaccinated more than half of its 9.3 million population against the coronavirus, but restrictions on massive public gatherings remain in place to stem the spread of the virus.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews have throughout the pandemic shown resistance towards health and safety measures mandated by the government.
President Reuven Rivlin said he had received condolence messages from Australia, the Vatican, King Abdullah II of neighbouring Jordan and from across Europe.
"Devastating scenes... in Israel. My thoughts are with the Israeli people and those who have lost loved ones in this tragedy," British Prime Minister Boris Johnson tweeted.
In a statement, France sought to assure "the Israeli people of its deep solidarity in this ordeal".