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Data shows police have fined very few ultra-Orthodox for mass prayer gatherings

Amid reports of large events and a lack of enforcement by police, only 171 fines issued for prayer violations across the country during lockdown – and only one in Jerusalem

Police and ultra-Orthodox Jews during the funeral of Pittsburgh Rebbe Mordechai Leifer in the city of Ashdod on October 5, 2020. (Flash90)
Police and ultra-Orthodox Jews during the funeral of Pittsburgh Rebbe Mordechai Leifer in the city of Ashdod on October 5, 2020. (Flash90)

Fewer than 200 fines for holding mass prayer services, which are forbidden by the coronavirus lockdown, have been issued across the country, despite widespread reports of mass gatherings by ultra-Orthodox worshipers, according to data released by the Israel Police to the Knesset.

Raising further questions, all but one of those fines were handed out outside of Jerusalem, despite the capital being a major center for ultra-Orthodox sects that have refused to abide by the restrictions.

At the same time, police handed out thousands of fines to demonstrators calling for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s resignation in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, according to the data released Monday.

The new data comes amid reports that police have purposefully refrained from enforcing the lockdown in ultra-Orthodox areas. Last week, Haaretz reported that Jerusalem police had covertly agreed with religious institutions in Mea Shearim to turn a blind eye to mass gatherings over the week-long Sukkot holiday. Police have denied the allegations.

All told, only 171 fines were issued across the country for prayer services that violated the coronavirus restrictions — even as reports of mass gatherings by the ultra-Orthodox, often without masks and distancing, dominated the news cycle during Sukkot and the subsequent Simchat Torah holiday.

Only one fine was issued in Jerusalem, and only 21 in the police’s Judea and Samaria district, which includes the major ultra-Orthodox settlements of Modiin Illit and Beitar Ilit, the data showed.

The ultra-Orthodox have seen sky-high coronavirus infection rates, with assessments last week finding that the rate of infection in the community is some three times that of the national average.

In a recording aired by Channel 12 last week, Modiin Ilit police chief Tzahi Halfon told ultra-Orthodox leaders that they had little need to worry about serious police enforcement.

“You know I don’t come in to search any synagogues here” to ensure that rules barring indoor prayers are being followed, Halfon said. “I didn’t send patrols on Yom Kippur…I didn’t come in yesterday.”

During Sukkot, 165 tickets were issued for spending time in a sukkah in violation of the guidelines in Tel Aviv. But in far more religious Jerusalem, only 40 were fined for that offense.

Police scuffle with protesters during a demonstration against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, October 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit, File)

All told, 53,514 fines were issued to Israelis who entered public spaces for an illegal purpose and 24,227 for not wearing a mask. An additional 1,238 were fined for illegally opening a business, which carries a 5,000 NIS penalty.

Notably, Israel Police reported that no fines had been issued for “failure to maintain two meters’ distance.” Anti-Netanyahu demonstrators told the Haaretz daily that they had been issued such fines, even though police were not authorized to hand them out.

The data was submitted by police at a Knesset committee meeting on Sunday morning on officers’ conduct during the recent anti-Netanyahu protest wave.

Israel Police did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the enforcement of the lockdown rules.

The Times of Israel had previously asked a police spokesperson for the data eventually issued to the Knesset, only to be rebuffed and told that the Israel Police did not have statistics on the breakdown of lockdown tickets.

The second coronavirus lockdown forbids Israelis from traveling more than a kilometer from their homes to attend a demonstration, though thousands of demonstrators have nonetheless gathered in Tel Aviv on several occasions, and held marches through the coastal city.

Police have struggled to enforce the regulations. Some officers have been accused of excessive force while attempting to disperse protesters violating the restrictions.

In a rare move, the police did not send a representative to the Knesset discussion to take questions from committee members. Yesh Atid MK Ofer Shelah blamed what he called “political pressures” on the police, especially in light of the lack of a police commissioner for two years.

“We invited Acting National Police Commissioner [Motti Cohen], his deputy, and the Tel Aviv and Jerusalem police chiefs in writing. I’d like to say that we could have subpoenaed them, but we chose not to disrespect them,” said Shelah. “It was clear in our conversations yesterday that they were concerned — and these men are no cowards — about coming to testify before the committee.”

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