Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews had gathered at the tomb of the 2nd-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai for annual commemorations that include all-night prayer and dance.

Israeli security officials and rescuers carry a body of a victim who died during a Lag Ba'Omer celebrations at Mt Meron in northern Israel, Friday, April 30, 2021.
Israeli security officials and rescuers carry a body of a victim who died during a Lag Ba'Omer celebrations at Mt Meron in northern Israel, Friday, April 30, 2021. (AP)

A stampede at a religious festival attended by tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews in northern Israel has killed at least 45 people and injured about 150 others.

Friday's tragedy was one of the country's deadliest civilian disasters.

The stampede began when large numbers of people thronged a narrow tunnel-like passage during the event, according to witnesses and video footage. People began falling on top of each other near the end of the walkway, as they descended slippery metal stairs, witnesses said.

One of the injured, Avraham Leibe, told Israeli public broadcaster Kan that a crush of people trying to descend the mountain caused a “general bedlam” on a slippery metal slope followed by stairs.

"Nobody managed to halt,” he said from a hospital bed. “I saw one after the other fall.”

The stampede occurred during the celebrations of Lag BaOmer at Mount Meron, the first mass religious gathering to be held legally since Israel lifted nearly all restrictions related to the coronavirus pandemic.

Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews had gathered at the tomb of the 2nd-century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai on Friday for annual commemorations that include all-night prayer and dance.

Video footage showed large numbers of people, most of them black-clad ultra-Orthodox men, squeezed in the tunnel. Initial reports and witnesses said police barricades had prevented people from exiting quickly.

Magen David Adom, the Israeli rescue service, tweeted that medics are on the scene were treating several injured.

Bodies lay on stretchers in a corridor, completely covered in foil blankets.

On Twitter, Netanyahu called it a "heavy disaster" and added: "We are all praying for the wellbeing of the casualties."

It is thought to be one of the largest gatherings of people – certainly in Israel and perhaps farther afield – since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic more than a year ago. 

The country has seen cases plummet since launching one of the world’s most successful vaccination campaigns late last year.

The gathering had been held in defiance of health officials who had worries that crowding could pose a Covid-19 risk.

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.

Police said on Thursday that they had arrested two people for disrupting officers' efforts to keep order at the site.

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Source: TRTWorld and agencies