44 Killed in Stampede at Israel Lag Ba'omer Night; Did Bomb Threat Trigger Panic?

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At least 44 people were killed in a stampede at Israel's Mount Meron after huge crowds gathered there to celebrate the festival of Lag Ba'omer. The annual celebration at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai in northern Israel traditionally attracts huge crowds. More than 100,000 people gathered at the mount on Thursday, as the festival resumed this year following closure last year during the coronavirus lockdown.

More than 100 people have been injured and nearly half of them are in critical condition, the Jerusalem Post reported. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the incident was a "heavy disaster".

It is not clear how the stampede happened, but a Reuters report cited a pilgrim saying that the people were probably scared by a bomb alert.

What is Lag B'Omer Festival?

Lag B'Omer bonfire at Israel's Mount Meron
Lag B'Omer bonfire at Israel's Mount Meron Wikimedia Commons

The Lag B'Omer bonfire is held at the grave of the Israeli sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. Thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews usually throng the Galilee tomb of 2nd-century sage Rabbi every year. The celebrations include all-night prayer, songs and dance.

"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," an eyewitness told Channel 12 TV, according to Reuters.

"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 pilgrim added.

The Lag B'Omer festival is one of the largest gatherings of people in Israel. The tomb at Mount Meron among the holiest places for Jews.

Chaotic scenes were seen in footage that appeared on social media. The videos showed people trying to escape from the rubble of mangled fences and debris even as dead bodies lay on stretchers, covered in blankets.

(Story to be updated)