Israel Government Watchdog Report Warned Crowd Conditions at Religious Festival Could Be Disastrous

A 2008 Israeli government watchdog report warned that conditions at an ultra-Orthodox religious festival in Mount Meron, Israel, could be disastrous—a prediction that came true on Friday when at least 45 people were killed and dozens more injured in a stampede.

Health experts and the watchdog report have long warned that the gathering of ultra-Orthodox Jews celebrating Lag BaOmer could "endanger the public," due to overcrowded conditions, large fires and hot weather, the Associated Press reported.

On Friday, that warning came to pass when at least 45 were killed as people began to leave the festival at 1 a.m. in a narrow, tunnel-like passage. According to witnesses, people began to fall on a slippery ramp, causing others to trip, spark panic, and result in a deadly stampede, AP reported.

The disaster prompted a national outpouring of grief as devastated families rushed to identify their dead relatives and bury them ahead of the Jewish Sabbath. There was also anger toward authorities over an accident that experts had long feared, further clouding Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's hopes of remaining in office.

Netanyahu, who briefly visited Mount Meron at midday, offered his condolences. "In these moments our people unite and that is what we are doing at this moment as well," he said.

He announced Sunday would be a day of national mourning and said he had joined the masses of people who donated blood for the victims. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin lit 45 candles in honor of the dead. Messages of condolences poured in from around the world.

For more reporting from the Associated Press, see below.

Mount Meron Festival
Ultra-Orthodox Jewish mourners attend the funeral of a Mount Meron stampede victim at Segula cemetery in Petah Tikva on April 30, 2021. GIL COHEN MAGEN/AFP/Getty Images

Lag BaOmer is very popular with Israel's ultra-Orthodox community. The main event takes place each year at Mount Meron. Tens of thousands, mostly ultra-Orthodox, celebrate to honor Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd-century sage and mystic who is believed to be buried there. This year, authorities said some 100,000 people attended.

The crowds light bonfires, dance and have large festive meals as part of the celebrations. Across the country, even in secular areas, smaller groups gather in parks and forests for barbecues and bonfires.

Video footage from the scene of the disaster showed large numbers of people, most of them black-clad ultra-Orthodox men, squeezed in the tunnel. Witnesses complained that police barricades had prevented people from exiting properly.

At least 45 were killed, according to the Israeli Health Ministry, with four people remaining in critical condition and dozens more hospitalized.

Bodies were later taken to Israel's central forensic institute for identification, where distraught families waited to identify their loved ones. Israel's Army Radio said some 40 people remained unaccounted for.

By Friday night, 32 victims had been identified. Israeli media earlier published a partial list of the victims, including a 9-year-old boy, a pair of brothers, 12 and 14, and a father of 11 children. An unknown number of American citizens, two Canadians and an Argentine were also among the dead.

Avigdor Hayut, who survived the stampede, described slipping on the ramp and getting trapped in the crowd with his two sons, ages 10 and 13.

"My son screamed, 'I'm dying,'" he told Israel's public TV station Kan. A policeman tried to pull him and his younger son out of the crowd but couldn't move them.

"The policeman threw up and started crying, and I understood what he was looking at, what I couldn't see," said Hayut, 36, who suffered a broken ankle and ribs. "I thought this was the end." He said he began to pray and "simply waited."

Israel Stampede
Israeli security officials and rescuers stand around the bodies of victims who died during a Lag BaOmer celebrations at Mount Meron in northern Israel on Friday, April 30, 2021. Ishay Jerusalemite/Behadrei Haredim/Associated Press