US citizens among fatalities in Israel religious festival stampede

Anger mounts following disaster on the slopes of Mount Meron

People light candles during a vigil in Tel Aviv after a deadly stampede in a northern Jewish pilgrimage town. AFP.
People light candles during a vigil in Tel Aviv after a deadly stampede in a northern Jewish pilgrimage town. AFP.

US citizens are among the dozens killed and injured in a stampede at a religious festival in Israel, the US embassy said on Saturday, as criticism mounted after one of the biggest civilian disasters in the country's history.

At least 45 people were crushed to death and more than 100 injured at the ultra-Orthodox Jewish festival on the slopes of Israel's Mount Meron, held overnight between Thursday and Friday.

The exact cause of the disaster is still not clear but witness accounts and videos posted on social media suggested that some people fell down stairs leading out of a narrow passageway.

This passageway was packed with hundreds of worshippers trying to leave the site. A surge of people came down upon those who fell, leading to trampling and asphyxiation.

One witness described seeing a pyramid of people piling up, one on top of the other. The authorities said were children among those hurt.

Avigdor Hayut, injured in the crush, lost his son, 13. He said they were caught under a mass of people.

"I was on the floor. Twenty seconds stood between me being with him now, no more. I was already numb and my vision was blurred," he said before he was discharged from hospital to attend his son's funeral.

"My son was screaming to me: 'Daddy, I'm going to die,'" Mr Hayut said. "They got me out at the last minute."

Avigdor Hayut who was hurt in the deadly stampede at Mount Meron sits on a wheel chair near his son Shmuel Hayut who was also hurt at the stampede and his wife as his father is speaking at the funeral of his son Yedidia Hayut, 13, died at the stampede. Getty Images
Avigdor Hayut, who was hurt in the deadly stampede at Mount Meron, sits on a wheel chair near his son, Shmuel Hayut, who was also hurt at the stampede and his wife as his father is speaking at the funeral of his son Yedidia Hayut, 13. Getty Images

The Health Ministry said 32 of the dead were identified by late Friday. The identification process paused for 24 hours in observance of the Jewish Sabbath and resumed on Saturday evening as families prepared for burials.

About 20 of the people injured were still in hospital by Friday night. More than 2,000 Israelis across the country responded to an emergency call for blood donations, according to Magen David Adom, Israel's ambulance service.

A US embassy representative said: "We can confirm that multiple US citizens were among the casualties." Those included both dead and injured.

The US embassy was trying to verify if any more American citizens were involved and is providing all possible consular support, the representative said, declining to comment further.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry said on Friday that consular officials in New York were in contact with four families of victims and the Israeli embassy in Argentina was in contact with one family.

US media identified some of the dead, including a 19-year-old American citizen who was in Israel on a gap year.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Friday that two Canadians were killed in the disaster.

Condolences poured in from leaders around the world, including US President Joe Biden and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

SAFETY CONCERNS

Israel's Justice Ministry said investigators would look into whether there had been any police misconduct connected to the tragedy. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised a thorough investigation to ensure such an incident did not happen again.

Public Security Minister Amir Ohana and Police Commissioner Yaakov Shabtai both said on Saturday they will co-operate fully with any probe.

A dozen people protested outside Mr Ohana's home in Tel Aviv, spelling out the word "shame" with lit candles.

There had been concern for years about safety risks at the annual event, held at the tomb of a 2nd-century Jewish sage in Galilee.

Anger is mounting at the government and the police for allowing the event to go ahead despite its size far exceeding the coronavirus restrictions on gatherings. An estimated 100,000 people packed the festival.

Some critics said politicians had given in to pressure from ultra-Orthodox leaders who are presently allied with Mr Netanyahu but have challenged the state's authority for years.

"The government wouldn't consider any restrictions for fear of its Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) partners," wrote Anshel Pfeffer, an analyst for the left-wing Haaretz newspaper. "And as far as physical safety was concerned, this year wasn’t any different from previous ones. Warnings of a potential disaster have been heard many times before, including from members of the Haredi community, but the traditions must not be changed."

Updated: May 2, 2021 01:23 PM

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