Netanyahu calls stampede one of Israel's 'worst disasters'

Meron (Israel) (AFP) –

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said a stampede that killed at least 44 people at a Jewish pilgrimage site on Friday was one of the "worst" disasters in Israel's history.

The tragedy struck after pilgrims thronged to the site of the reputed tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, where mainly ultra-Orthodox Jews mark the Lag BaOmer holiday.

"The Mount Meron disaster is one of the worst to befall the State of Israel," Netanyahu wrote on Twitter, declaring Sunday a national day of mourning.

"What happened here is heartbreaking. There were people crushed to death, including children. Many of those who died have not yet been identified," he said.

"Our hearts go out to the families (of those who died) and the injured, whom we wish a speedy recovery," said the Israeli leader.

Lag BaOmer is traditionally a joyous occasion that marks the end of a devastating plague that killed thousands of students at a Talmudic religious school.

This year's pilgrimage comes after the lifting of restrictions imposed to stop the spread of the Covid-19 pandemic in Israel, which has fully vaccinated more than half of its 9.3 million population.

Netanyahu promised a "thorough investigation" into the tragedy, which Israeli media said happened after some 90,000 people descended on the site authorised to host 10,000 pilgrims.

Witnesses have pointed a finger of blame at police, saying the stampede came after officers closed a narrow ramp as more and more people arrived.

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.