Dozens of people have been killed in a stampede at a Jewish pilgrimage site in northern Israel late on Thursday night.
At least 38 people are dead and another 65 people are injured, including six in critical condition who have been evacuated to hospital, according to according to Israeli emergency service Magen David Adom, which said a further 18 are in serious condition.
“We were at the entrance, we decided we wanted to get out and then the police blocked the gate, so whoever wanted to get out could not get out,” an eyewitness told local publication Maariv.
“In that hurry we fell on each other, I thought I was going to die. I saw people dead next to me.”
A field hospital has been set up at the scene, with the nearby Ziv Medical Center announcing it was receiving around 150 injured patients, according to The Jerusalem Post.
“MDA is fighting for the lives of dozens wounded, and will not give up until the last victim is evacuated,” MDA said on Twitter.
Distressing footage uploaded to social media showed footage of tightly packed crowds at the event prior to the disaster.
Other footage showed police heroically using their bare hands to break open metal barricades to rescue trapped worshippers.
Initial reports had said that a grandstand collapsed, but MDA said all injuries occurred in the stampede.
The annual event, which attracted tens of thousands of people this year, takes place at the foot of Mount Meron to celebrate the Jewish holiday Lag BaOmer, honouring second-century sage and mystic Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai who is buried there.
The Associated Press reports that it was the first huge religious gathering of its kind in Israel since nearly all COVID-19 restrictions were lifted, after cases in the country plummeted following a successful mass vaccination campaign.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said there had been a “serious disaster on Mount Meron”.
“We are all praying for the recovery of the injured. I ask to strengthen the rescue forces operating in the area,” he said.
Naftali Bennett, head of the right-wing Yamina coalition, said on Twitter, “An unbearable disaster at the tomb of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai. The entire nation of Israel is united in prayer for the victims.”
Yair Lapid from the centrist Yesh Atid party wrote on Facebook, “I follow with concern and pain and anxiety the terrible disaster that occurred during the celebration at Meron. The whole of Israel is now praying for the healing of the injured. This is a difficult and sad night.”
– with AFP