Around 150 other people were also injured in the crush during this year’s Lag B’Omer commemorations, which took place on Friday evening – a month after Passover – near the town of Meron in northern Israel.
A crowd thought to be 100,000-strong had gathered for the ultra-Orthodox religious festival at the tomb of the 2nd-century mystic Rabbi Shim Bar Yochai, soon after coronavirus restrictions had lifted.
Overcrowding in a tight passageway in the male section of the gender-segregated event is thought to have caused the tragedy, with children among those who died from being trampled or asphyxiated.
Footage on social media showed people trying to escape through gaps in corrugated-iron sheets during the crush and covered bodies later laid out on stretchers.
Shlomo Katz, 36, was at the festival. “We were going to go inside for the dancing and stuff and all of a sudden we saw paramedics from (ambulance service) MDA running by, like mid-CPR on kids,” he told Reuters.
One injured man told reporters what he saw at the start of the stampede. “People were piling up one on top of the other. I was in the second row. The people in the first row – I saw people die in front of my eyes,” he said.
He was among the 150 people who were hospitalised after the incident, according to Zaki Heller, spokesman for the Magen David Adom rescue service.
Mr Heller said“no one had ever dreamed” such a disaster could happen. “In one moment, we went from a happy event to an immense tragedy,” he added.
The Lag B’Omer festival went ahead despite health officials’ recommendation that it be cancelled. Top officials, including the public security minister Amir Ohana, visited the event and 5,000 police officers were on hand to keep order.
Religious leaders have demanded an investigation into what happened and the justice ministry indicated that it would examine whether there had been any police misconduct.
Reports in Israeli media suggest chokepoints could have been inadvertently caused by partitions set up as part of social distancing measures.
The number of known fatalities equals the death toll from a forest fire, which occurred on Mount Carmel, south of the city of Haifa, in 2010.
Israeli prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Mount Meron and described the crush as a “heavy disaster”.
Many countries sent their condolences to Israel, with Boris Johnson tweeting: “Devastating scenes at the Lag B’Omer festival in Israel. My thoughts are with the Israeli people and those who have lost loved ones in this tragedy.”
Additional reporting by agencies