Dozens critically injured in stampede at Israeli religious festival

Bodies lie on the ground in Meron after a stampede at a religious festival

Almost 40 people were killed and over 100 injured in a stampede that broke out overnight at a Jewish religious gathering attended by tens of thousands of people in northern Israel, according to media reports on Friday.

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 that include all-night prayer and dance.

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

The Magen David Adom ambulance service said 103 people had been injured, including dozens fatally.

"MDA is fighting for the lives of dozens wounded, and will not give up until the last victim is evacuated", it said.

The event was one of the largest gatherings in Israel since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic more than a year ago.

A field hospital was set up at the scene.

Phone service at the scene crashed as thousands attempted to contact family members and emergency services. Numerous injured were evacuated to hospitals across the country.

Police shut down the site and ordered revellers to be evacuated by bus.

Thousands of Jewish pilgrims in Israel's biggest Covid-era gathering

"I felt like I was about to die", he said.

Some of the injured have been transported by military helicopter to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, rescue workers said.

Since the site was so densely populated, search and rescue authorities say they struggled to evacuate trapped people.

Yehuda Gottleib, one of the first responders from United Hatzalah, said he saw "dozens of people fall on top of one another during the collapse".

United Hatzalah is the volunteer-based emergency medical services organisation. "It was a disaster", a witnesses told Haaretz.

Media estimated the crowd at about 100,000 people.

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

Prime Minister Netanyahu requested that rescue authorities bolster their presence at the scene. It also said in a tweet that that 38 were critically inured and still at the location, six were in critical condition at a hospital, 18 were severely injured, two were moderately injured and 39 were lightly injured.

An investigation has been launched by the Israel Police into the incident.

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