Followers of Druze sheikh snatch his body from hospital to hold mass funeral

Rioters from Majdal Shams break into Safed medical center, where law enforcement had been holding body of community leader who died of COVID in effort to prevent large gathering

Around 100 Druze broke into a hospital in northern Israel on Friday evening and snatched the body of a community leader who died of COVID-19 in order to hold a mass funeral in defiance of law enforcement.

The rioters from Majdal Shams, a town near the Syrian border, stormed into Safed’s Ziv Medical Center where Sheikh Abu Zain Al-Din Hassan Halabi had passed away hours earlier.

They managed to overcome officers from the Yasam special police unit who had been stationed at the hospital as law enforcement officials negotiated with Druze community leaders over how to hold the funeral.

Government officials had been seeking to prevent a mass funeral due to the already high morbidity rate in Majdal Shams, which is designated as a “red zone” by the Health Ministry and is currently under a local lockdown.

The two sides were working on a compromise, which would have seen the funeral held at an outdoor gymnasium in Majdal Shams with a limited number of participants. Opponents of the compromise broke into Ziv hospital before an agreement was reached.

Video said to be from the scene showed the rioters throwing aside police barricades, shoving security personnel, pounding on the hospital door, marching down the medical center’s hallways and carrying the body through a parking lot.

After securing Halabi’s body, his followers set out on a funeral procession from the town of Mas’ade to nearby Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights.

Some attendees were from the Galilee region of northern Israel, and the mixing of those participants with residents of Majdal Shams risked further spreading the virus to the wider Druze population in the north, Channel 12 reported.

Yesh Atid MK Gadeer Mreeh, who is Druze, condemned the incident.

“This behavior isn’t befitting of the esteemed status of the late honorable sheikh,” she wrote on Twitter. “All of us must listen and act in accordance with the Health Ministry instructions.”

Druze residents of Majdal Shams and the Golan are Syrian in origin, and are permanent residents of Israel but not citizens, unlike Druze in other areas of Israel, who have historically made major contributions to public service in the country, especially in the realm of security.

Israeli Druze, members of a 1,000-year-old offshoot of Shiite Islam, number some 145,000 people and live primarily in the country’s north.

Mass community events are believed to have played a significant part in Israel’s virus outbreak, especially religious events among some ultra-Orthodox groups and weddings in some Arab communities.

Government ministers decided Friday to extend the closure of Majdal Shams, and impose a weeklong local lockdown on the northern Arab Israeli locality of Bu’eine Nudeidat due to the high virus infection rates in both areas.

Meeting after the co-called coronavirus committee decided early Friday morning to reopen synagogues on Sunday as some students return to school, the ad-hoc Ministerial Committee for Restricted Areas decided to impose severe limitations in the two towns until next Thursday.

Outgoing coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu told ministers Friday that the closure on Majdal Shams should be extended as infection rates there had not dropped sufficiently. He also pushed for the closure on Bu’eine Nujeidat, which has also seen a sharp rise in cases.

Speaking at the meeting of the coronavirus cabinet, Gamzu said that seven other cities with high infection rates, mostly with majority Arab populations, may need to face similar lockdowns: Taybeh, Kafr Kanna, Manar, Deir al-Asad, Kafr Kassem, Kafr Qara and I’billin.

Border police officers patrol the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem as Israel rolls back coronavirus restrictions, October 28, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

In addition to a closure of almost all businesses, entry and exit from both Bu’eine Nujeidat and Majdal Shams will be restricted. The nationwide opening of schools for grades 1-4 will be delayed there but kindergartens, which reopened last week, will continue to operate.

Last week, Majdal Shams, located near the Syrian border in the Golan Heights, became the first Israeli town to face a citywide lockdown since Israel lifted hot zone restrictions from all areas except for one Jerusalem neighborhood, as part of the so-called traffic light plan. Under the plan, areas are graded by morbidity rates and assigned a color-coded designation. Red zones, those with the highest infection rates, are to be locked down and activities there heavily restricted.

Israel began a month-long lockdown on September 18 that succeeded in bringing down surging infection rates but also paralyzed much of the economy and public life, as well as shuttering the entire education system.

The Health Ministry said on Friday morning that 1.8 percent of the 36,318 tests carried out on Thursday came back positive, the lowest positivity rate since June.

The general decline in the number of tests over the past several weeks, however, has led to expressions of concern from health officials.

There were 630 new coronavirus cases confirmed on Thursday, taking the total number of infections in Israel since the start of the pandemic to 313,590.

According to ministry data, there were 11,254 active cases in Israel, including 410 COVID-19 patients in serious condition — 190 of them on ventilators — and 101 in moderate condition.

There were three additional fatalities overnight, taking the national death toll to 2,511.

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