A massive stampede at a densely packed Jewish pilgrimage site killed at least 44 people in Israel yesterday, blackening the country's largest Covid-era gathering.
The nighttime disaster 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 mark the Lag BaOmer holiday.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was helicoptered in to the scene in Israel's far north, said the "Mount Meron disaster" was "one of the worst to befall" the country since its foundation seven decades ago.
"What happened here is heartbreaking. There were people crushed to death, including children," he tweeted.
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.
"This year, as we continue to inch closer to the end of a modern-day plague, I encourage everyone to find meaning and joy in celebrating the end of a different plague that occurred many years ago," a rabbi wrote in the Jerusalem Post before yesterday's tragedy.
Witnesses pointed a finger of blame at police.
"There is an iron ramp going down from the site of a bonfire... It was very crowded... people had to walk down on this ramp in order to exit," said Shmuel, an 18-year-old.
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", he told AFP.
Britain, France and the EU offered their condolences.