Videos posted on social media in the minutes after the crush showed ultra-Orthodox men clambering desperately through gaps in sheets of torn corrugated iron to escape the crush.
People who stayed on the scene through the night questioned how the situation so quickly spiralled out of control, though there had been concern for years about safety risks at the annual event.
“There was some kind of mess, police, screaming, a big mess, and after half an hour it looked like a scene of a suicide bombing attack, numerous people coming out from there on stretchers,” said 19-year-old festival-goer Hayim Cohen.
“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,” 36-year-old pilgrim Shlomo Katz said.
An injured man lying on a hospital bed described how the crush began when a line of people in the front of the surging crowd simply collapsed.
“A pyramid of one on top of another was formed. 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 told reporters.
The Mount Meron tomb is considered to be one of the holiest sites in the Jewish world and is an annual pilgrimage site. The event was one of the largest gatherings in Israel since the coronavirus pandemic began more than a year ago.
The Justice Ministry said investigators would look into whether there had been any police misconduct connected to the tragedy.
About a decade ago a government watchdog report found fault with the management of the festival premises, and a “systemic failure” in maintenance that could endanger visitors. It was not immediately known what steps were taken to remedy the situation.
A police spokesman said overall capacity at Mount Meron was similar to previous years but that this time bonfire areas were partitioned off as a COVID-19 precaution. Israel media said that may have created unexpected choke-points on foot traffic.
As rescue workers tried to extricate the casualties, police shut down the site and ordered revellers out. The Transportation Ministry halted roadworks in the area to enable scores of ambulances and pilgrim buses to move unhindered.
Private bonfires at Mount Meron were banned last year due to coronavirus restrictions. But lockdown measures were eased this year amid Israel’s rapid vaccination program that has seen more than half of the population fully vaccinated.