Dozens critically injured in stampede at Israeli religious festival

Dozens killed and many more critically injured in Israeli bonfire festival disaster

A large bonfire is lit and crowds pray and dance as part of the celebrations.

Israeli media have published an image of a row of bodies covered in plastic bags on the ground.

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.

Dozens of people have been killed in a stampede at a religious festival in the north-east of Israel.

"I had just sat down to eat when I heard the screams; We rushed to help, and then we saw the bodies", Avi, a witness who helped treat the injured told the Haaretz newspaper.

The New York Times reported that some estimated that about 100,000 people were at the location.

Ambulance officials described the incident as a stampede and said 103 people had been injured, including dozens fatally.

Initial reports indicated that the carnage began when a section of stadium seating collapsed but rescue workers later linked the casualties to a stampede.

By Friday morning, Zaka, another ambulance service, said the death toll had risen to 44.

Heller told the station "no one had ever dreamed" something like this could happen. "In one moment, we went from a happy event to an enormous tragedy", he said.

Tens of thousands of people had gathered at the foot of Mount Meron to celebrate Lag B'Omer - a Jewish holiday honoring Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, a 2nd century sage and mystic who is buried there.

But officials later said it appeared the casualties had been asphyxiated or trampled in a stampede.

AP reported it was the first legal religious gathering held in Israel since the country's COVID-19 restrictions had been lifted following its remarkably fast vaccine rollout.

The tomb is considered to be one of the holiest sites in the Jewish world and it is an annual pilgrimage site, and the deadly gathering was thought to be one of the largest crowds of people in Israel since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic more than a year ago.

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.

Ohana, a close ally of Netanyahu, thanked police for their hard work and dedication "for protecting the well-being and security for the many participants" as he wished the country a happy holiday.