20 detained as ultra-Orthodox clash with cops enforcing lockdown

Dozens barricade themselves in Jerusalem yeshiva as police close it down for violating closure orders; man arrested with knife, pepper spray; riots also take place in Bnei Brak

Police officers during a raid on a yeshiva that opened in violation of COVID-19 lockdown regulations, in the Sanhedria neighborhood in Jerusalem, January 19, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Police officers during a raid on a yeshiva that opened in violation of COVID-19 lockdown regulations, in the Sanhedria neighborhood in Jerusalem, January 19, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Violent clashes broke out Tuesday in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak during a police crackdown on ultra-Orthodox violations of a national lockdown ordered to curb coronavirus infections, with 20 detained in the capital for resisting the enforcement.

In Jerusalem, dozens of people barricaded themselves inside a yeshiva open against the health regulations until police forced entry. One of those arrested at the site was armed with a knife and pepper spray, the Israel Police said in a statement.

Those inside the building, located in the Sanhedria neighborhood of the capital, had blocked the entrance with tables and chairs, Hebrew media reported.

There were no reports of injuries in the incident.

The police moves against ultra-Orthodox violators came as criticism has intensified over alleged discrimination in the enforcement of the current lockdown restrictions, with authorities handing significantly fewer fines in ultra-Orthodox areas, where the outbreak has been disproportionately intense and where there are increasing reports of widespread flouting of the measures.

As part of the Tuesday enforcement drive, police checked “various institutes, yeshivas, synagogues and other places in order to check compliance” with the lockdown regulations, the statement said.

Police said that, as has been the case in previous days, they were met with resistance “and many attempts to prevent police from carrying out their mission” as protesters pelted police with stones, blocked roads, and insulted officers.

Dozens of citations were written for violating lockdown orders which require citizens to wear face masks in public and limit indoor gatherings to just five people, outdoor gatherings to ten, and that have shuttered the country’s education system. In addition, 20 people were detained or arrested for disturbing public order, refusal to identify themselves to officers, and stone-throwing, police said.

There were further clashes in the largely ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak between cops and students at a yeshiva that opened in violation of the coronavirus lockdown.

Police said officers who entered the yeshiva found dozens gathered there.

“After the forces ordered the dispersal of the gathering, those present began to riot while entrenching themselves in the place, throwing stones toward the officers and a police cruiser and blocking a road. Police forces are now operating to disperse them,” police said in a statement.

The Kan public broadcaster reported Monday that Bnei Brak, where 20% of coronavirus tests have been coming back positive, has seen just 2.6 fines per one thousand residents, while Tel Aviv (with a recent 4% positivity rate) has 5.6 fines per thousand residents, Beersheba (6%) has 5.15 and Rishon Lezion (6%) has 4.3.

Footage of yet another mass wedding in Bnei Brak drew outrage on Monday night, with police taking a long time — about an hour after it was widely reported — to arrive. Officers eventually ended the event, handed out fines and summoned the organizers for questioning on suspicion of spreading a disease.

Condemnation came from across the political spectrum, including from Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who heads the ultra-Orthodox Shas party. He said the wedding contravened a Torah commandment to “be very careful with your lives,” caused “severe desecration of God’s name” and tainted the image of the entire ultra-Orthodox community, also known as Haredi.

The Israeli town with the highest positive test rate (28.5%), Beitar Illit, has been seeing widespread calls to avoid “informing” on residents who flout the rules. The settlement’s top rabbinical court said contacting authorities was forbidden without its approval.

Roni Numa, the government official who oversees the pandemic response in the ultra-Orthodox community, said in a Monday press briefing that more enforcement was needed to close Haredi schools.

Numa said shuttering ultra-Orthodox schools for another 10 days would be exceedingly difficult, and said some 15% of ultra-Orthodox schools remained open. “If even only a small part is open, if we don’t stop it, [the outbreak] will continue to grow,” he warned.

He said that 30% of infections in Israel were coming from the ultra-Orthodox community, but that it appeared the high rate of infection was decreasing. The group constitutes around 10% of the general population.

Some 20% of virus tests are coming back positive in ultra-Orthodox areas compared to around 5% in the general population, Numa said.

The Health Ministry said Tuesday morning that a record 10,021 infections were confirmed the previous day, bringing the country’s total caseload since the start of the pandemic to 562,167, including 81,059 active cases.

The rate of positive tests passed the 10 percent mark for the first time in over three months, with 10.2% of the nearly 100,000 tests coming back positive.

There were 1,114 serious cases, including 347 in critical condition and 277 on ventilators. The death toll grew to 4,049.

The continued high infection rates, despite three weeks of lockdown, prompted a cabinet meeting Tuesday to discuss extending the closure by at least another week. Blue and White ministers reportedly stressed they would only agree to extending the lockdown on condition, among other terms, that enforcement be stepped up in infection hotspots — focused mainly in ultra-Orthodox areas.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday asked Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a major leader in the Haredi community, to keep schools shuttered if the lockdown is extended, according to Hebrew-language media reports.

The Haredi community has seen some of the highest levels of infection since the start of the outbreak earlier this year, with leading rabbis initially pushing back against government-ordered restrictions on public life, later discouraging yeshiva students from bothering to get virus tests, and opening schools even when the country’s entire education system had been ordered closed. There was also initial hesitation to back the country’s mass vaccination program, although on the eve of its launch key community leaders issued declarations supporting the drive.

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