7 Israelis on pilgrimage to Uman arrested in Ukraine over drug possession, car crash

Four said detained at crossing near Moldovan border; separately, three taken in for questioning by local police after fatal car collision kills Ukrainian woman

Hasidic Jewish men seen in the street of Uman, ahead of the Rosh Hashanah holiday marking the Jewish new year, September 14, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Hasidic Jewish men seen in the street of Uman, ahead of the Rosh Hashanah holiday marking the Jewish new year, September 14, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Up to seven Israelis were arrested in Ukraine over the course of Thursday, among them four accused of drug possession and another three detained by local police after being involved in a fatal car crash, according to reports in the Hebrew media.

Local police arrested the four Israeli nationals suspected of drug possession at a crossing and took them in for questioning, according to Ynet, which also reported the arrest occurred outside the western Ukrainian city of Vinnytsia, near the Moldovan border. A vehicle with three Israelis traveling near the same city was involved in a crash with another car that killed a Ukrainian woman. All three were taken in by police, pending the crash investigation.

Channel 12 reported that among the four arrested for alleged drug possession, one was traveling with his eight-year-old son, who has remained in police custody with his father.

The exact drug charge was not reported. Cannabis is still illegal in Ukraine though the country has taken steps to legalize its use for medical purposes. In Israel, possession of small amounts of cannabis has been decriminalized, and cannabis use for medical purposes has been legal for nearly three decades.

The Israeli consul in Uman and the Israeli Foreign Ministry were aware of the arrests and working on the cases, according to the reports.

All seven Israelis arrested on Thursday were in the country for the annual Jewish pilgrimage to Uman, to which thousands of mainly ultra-Orthodox Jews travel ahead of Rosh Hashanah to celebrate the religious holiday in the Ukrainian city that is one of the birthplaces of the Hasidic movement.

Celebrations were to take place amid tightened security due to the 19-month Russian war on Ukraine. Kyiv had repeatedly advised pilgrims not to make the trip this year due to the dangers of traveling to a country in the midst of a war and to a city that had been previously targeted by lethal Russian air strikes.

Uman has been a pilgrimage site for around 200 years. It is the birthplace of Rabbi Nachman of Breslov, one of the founders of the Jewish Hasidic movement.

As of Thursday night, on the eve of Rosh Hashanah, over 36,000 entries of Hasidic pilgrims were recorded at crossings that lead to the city, Ynet reported.

Earlier in the day, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky met with dozens of Chabad rabbis in the country ahead of the Rosh Hashanah holiday and reportedly said he expected stronger backing from Israel, noting it would have made it easier for the country to host the thousands of pilgrims heading to Uman.

“He said he told Netanyahu that there is a shortage of bomb shelters, but if Israel would help Ukraine, there would be no need for the shelters,” one of the rabbis at the meeting told The Times of Israel.

“I will try to take care of Israelis on their way to Uman,” Israel’s Channel 12 reported Zelensky as saying, citing two people who were present. “But if Israel were to agree to send Iron Dome, there would be a way to protect those Israelis. The responsibility to protect them is also the Israeli government’s but it doesn’t do so.”

The Ynet news site also reported the remarks, without citing sources.

Zelensky, who is Jewish himself, handed out decorations to 15 Jewish soldiers at the event, organized by the Federation of Jewish Communities of Ukraine and its head, Rabbi Meir Stambler.

Israel has been working with Ukraine on deploying a civilian aerial warning system to alert the population to an incoming attack, but without the interceptor component that destroys incoming rockets.

The system is expected to initially cover much of Kyiv, before hopefully being copied in other cities.

Iran is supplying ally Russia with attack drones that Ukraine wants to shoot down with Iron Dome.

Ukraine has long sought missile interceptor capabilities, but Israel has so far refused, seeking to avoid overly antagonizing Russia. This hesitance is seen as linked to Israel’s strategic need to maintain freedom of operations in Syria, where Russian forces largely control the airspace.

Israel is one of the few countries that maintains relatively good relations with both Ukraine, a fellow Western democracy, and Russia.

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