Gantz threatens to block cabinet lockdown talks in spat over Haredi enforcement

Defense minister says law must be applied equally in secular and ultra-Orthodox localities; Liberman calls for end to state funding of institutions that flout regulations

Haredi schoolchildren outside a  school in the city of Ashdod, January 22, 2021. (Jack Guez/AFP)
Haredi schoolchildren outside a school in the city of Ashdod, January 22, 2021. (Jack Guez/AFP)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz insisted Tuesday that the cabinet would not convene to discuss extending the national lockdown, currently set to end Sunday, until the regulations were enforced equally across all sectors of society.

The threat came after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quietly moved to soften a bill that would have doubled fines against violators of virus restrictions in order to appease his Haredi political allies, amid clashes between residents and police in a number of ultra-Orthodox localities.

“When the Likud party stops using trickery and decides to take action, then the government will convene. The law for Bnei Brak and Beitar Illit is [the same as] the law for Herzliya and Rishon Lezion,” Gantz said, referring to two predominantly ultra-Orthodox areas and two mainly secular areas.

Channel 12 reported that under a compromise being drafted, fines would be raised, but not doubled, and lower-ranking cops would not be able to issue some types of fines.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, speaks with Defense Minister Benny Gantz, both wearing protective masks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, during a cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, June 7, 2020. (Menahem Kahana/Pool Photo via AP)

According to reports, Netanyahu has agreed with the Haredi parties that the bill to raise fines against lockdown violators will now go to the Knesset’s Constitution Law and Justice Committee, headed by United Torah Judaism MK Yaakov Asher, who will be able to hold it up. The Walla news site said the Joint List was also in favor of the agreement.

The bill to double the penalties passed its first reading earlier on Monday, angering the ultra-Orthodox. But the subsequent proposal to soften the bill drew fury from Gantz, who warned that he could prevent the extension of the nationwide lockdown.

Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman wears a protective face mask during a faction meeting in Tel Aviv on June 7, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Meanwhile Avigdor Liberman, head of the secularist Yisrael Beytenu party, said that state funding should be cut to institutions found to be breaking regulations.

“Instead of taking a hard line against the ultra-Orthodox intifada, [Netanyahu] punishes us all by extending the closure. It is time to deprive lawbreakers of budgets, and set free all those localities where morbidity is low,” Liberman said in a statement.

Health officials have said the lockdown should be extended as virus infection rates remain high despite the restrictions and the nationwide vaccination program, as highly contagious strains increase infection rates.

According to a report by the Kan public broadcaster on Tuesday, the parameters for exiting the lockdown will be based on the number of patients in critical condition, but the number has not yet been decided upon.

There have been multiple reports of flagrant violations of the lockdown in Haredi communities, with schools in particular remaining open, even though the lockdown orders included shuttering the entire education system with the exclusion of special education institutes. All nonessential businesses have also been closed.

Police clash with Ultra orthodox rioters during a protest against the police enforcement of a lockdown orders due to the coronavirus, in the city of Bnei Brak, January 24, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Critics have accused Netanyahu of avoiding cracking down on the Haredi public in order not to anger his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners. Top ultra-Orthodox officials on Sunday blamed police for the tensions.

Violence in ultra-Orthodox communities continued Monday. Rioters in Beit Shemesh clashed with police, with hundreds throwing rocks at officers, according to the force. Meanwhile, members of extremist Haredi factions blocked roads in Jerusalem in protest of works on the light rail, which is set to pass through their neighborhood despite their objections.

Netanyahu on Monday defended the police and condemned riots in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak a day earlier, which saw a mob torch a bus.

“The police are acting properly,” said Netanyahu. “The citizens must cooperate. There is an extremist fringe group; there are people there who are trying to create provocations.”

The prime minister said that “everyone who rioted yesterday has been arrested,” though only 13 have been detained, and footage from the scene showed hundreds participating. “Police dealt with violators of health rules with a heavy hand, as they should, and we will continue to do so,” the premier said.

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