Ultra-Orthodox politicians on Friday raged at police after major clashes broke out overnight in Bnei Brak between cops and rioters opposed to lockdown rules, with police in turn saying that officers were “brutally attacked.”
The skirmishes, which began Thursday night and continued into the predawn hours of Friday morning, came after a mob in the predominantly Haredi city injured a police officer on patrol.
At least six people were arrested for disturbing public order and police said seven officers were injured.
The rioting was condemned by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who vowed to act with a “heavy hand” against those who violated lockdown rules and assaulted police, but his ultra-Orthodox political allies lashed out at police over the rioting.
“What we saw tonight in Bnei Brak is a savage and aggressive revenge campaign by incited officers,” Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman, who heads the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, raged in a statement.
He accused the police of “collective punishment” against the approximately 200,000 residents of Bnei Brak but said all violence should be condemned, including against the police.
“However, I strongly condemn the order to send a company of officers in to take out their anger on passersby with batons, the use of stun grenades and water cannons, and during all hours of the night many were endangered,” he said.
He called on Public Security Minister Amir Ohana and police chief Yaakov Shabtai to seek “clarifications” about the officers’ conduct.
Echoing Litzman, UTJ Deputy Minister Meir Porush said police behaved “as if this was a violent revenge campaign.”
Bnei Brak Mayor Abraham Rubinstein said he spoke with Shabtai and demanded an internal police probe into the use of stun grenades. He also accused police of acting out of a “urge for revenge” and claimed the officers’ actions weren’t related to lockdown enforcement.
“Bnei Brak is not a no man’s land where it’s permitted to indiscriminately go wild,” Rubinstein was quoted saying by the Ynet news site.
האירוע לא נגמר ויש מרדפים ברחובות וגם רימוני הלם pic.twitter.com/IWbROfuGLO
— Bar Peleg (@bar_peleg) January 21, 2021
Police later issued a statement rejecting the criticism and saying that their officers were “brutally attacked.”
“The escalation in violence last night in Bnei Brak amounts to criminal and reckless behavior,” police said.
The force vowed to pursue “uncompromising enforcement” of the lockdown and to act against any violence toward officers.
Police also said the rioters were “shaming an entire public” and harming the health of ultra-Orthodox Israelis by flouting the lockdown and attacking cops.
“Unfortunately, this isn’t the only case this week in which officers enforcing the coronavirus ordinances were attacked and the phenomenon is only growing,” Shabtai said in a separate statement.
Shabtai vowed police will respond “decisively” to assaults on cops and continue to enforce the lockdown restrictions.
“The intensity of enforcement will be determined by the extent of violations and the behavior of the violators and in accordance with the law,” he said.
The police commissioner also called to increase fines for institutions that flout the lockdown and for “every law-abiding person” to denounce the Bnei Brak rioters.
“If you like the coronavirus guidelines or not, the role of the police is to enforce,” Ohana, the minister in charge of policing, wrote on Twitter.
Ohana, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, said any attack on officers “can’t pass quietly.” He added that most Bnei Brak residents are law-abiding and said they suffered an “injustice” overnight.
The statement came after an earlier tweet in which Ohana condemned the violence as a “despicable crime and desecration of God’s name by scoundrels” and pledged a swift response.
— איתי בלומנטל Itay Blumental (@ItayBlumental) January 21, 2021
The clashes began when dozens of rioters attacked two police officers on patrol in a vehicle in the city, lightly injuring a female police officer. The mob smashed the car’s windows, slashed its tires, pelted it with stones and tried to open its doors. One of the attackers appeared to run off with a bag snatched from inside the vehicle.
The officers were traveling in an unmarked car and some reports identified them as detectives. It was not immediately clear if they were wearing police uniforms during the incident.
The crowd had gathered as part of a protest against the closure of a yeshiva, or religious school, in the city that had opened in violation of the lockdown restrictions.
Around an hour after the initial attack, a force from the Yasam special police unit raided a yeshiva in the city, apparently the same school involved in the earlier incident. The entrance of the Yasam officers sparked widespread disturbances in the city, with some residents blocking roads and burning trash bins and tires. Some Bnei Brak residents called police officers “Nazis” and officers used riot dispersal methods including flash grenades.
The rioters belong to an extremist faction of the Vizhnitz Hasidic sect, according to Hebrew media reports.
There has been near-daily violent pushback against enforcement of the national lockdown aimed at curbing the pandemic in some parts of the ultra-Orthodox community. Other groups in the Haredi community abide by the restrictions.
Critics have accused Netanyahu of avoiding cracking down on the Haredi public in order not to anger his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.
Also Friday, police dispersed dozens of people who gathered at a pair of synagogues in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Beitar Illit and issued fines. A man was arrested on suspicion of biting an officer’s hand, according to the Kan public broadcaster.
In Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood, a stronghold of anti-Zionist Hasidic sects, police said a foreign journalist was attacked by rioters after entering the area to film. Officers were searching for suspects.
The journalist, an Israeli videographer for Danish television, was struck in the hand and forehead by rocks and bags of trash thrown at him, according to Channel 12 news.
“I’ve been working in Jerusalem for 20 years already and covered all types of events,” he told the network. “I didn’t believe it would reach violence like this, that was crazy.”
Police also prevented an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva in Ashdod from opening in violation of lockdown restrictions, after the seminary continued to operate despite repeated efforts to shutter it.
Officers lined up outside the seminary to ensure no one entered the Grudna Yeshiva, which is affiliated with the extremist, anti-Zionist Jerusalem Faction.
Some of those who gathered outside the building shouted at police and tried to enter the yeshiva in protest. There were no reports of clashes.
Friday’s operation followed numerous attempts to close the yeshiva, whose administrators refused to halt classes despite an ongoing national coronavirus lockdown requiring schools to close. In a report this week, Channel 12 news informed police the school was open, but an emergency hotline operator falsely insisted it was a special education school.
Rioting broke out earlier this month at another yeshiva in Ashdod linked to the Jerusalem Faction when police were sent to close it.
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) January 22, 2021
The government official in charge of the virus response in the ultra-Orthodox community, Roni Numa, estimated this week that 15% of Haredi schools remained open during the current lockdown and said that some 12,000 ultra-Orthodox students had contracted the coronavirus in the last month.
Police upped their crackdown on the community following media reports of previous lax enforcement, with figures showing that rates of handing out fines in Haredi neighborhoods are significantly lower than for the general population.