Health minister asks Netanyahu to quarantine virus-hit Bnei Brak

Health minister asks Netanyahu to quarantine virus-hit Bnei Brak

Litzman wants police to control entrance, exit, and provide food, essentials to residents of mainly ultra-Orthodox city with high number of cases due to lack of adherence to rules

Police patrol the ultra-Orthodox Jewish town of Bnei Brak, on March 30, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Police patrol the ultra-Orthodox Jewish town of Bnei Brak, on March 30, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman has asked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to impose a quarantine on the overwhelmingly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, one of the areas hardest hit by the coronavirus.

The apparent request came a day after video emerged of hundreds of people taking part in a late-night funeral, as police declined to enforce social distancing rules, amid a reported reluctance among some in the city’s ultra-Orthodox community to adhere to Health Ministry directives.

According to a Monday report from Channel 12 news, Litzman wants police to control the entrance and exit from the city, and also to provide food and essential products to residents to keep them at home. Sources close to the minister believe that the residents of Bnei Brak will cooperate with the move.

A spokesperson for Litzman confirmed the report.

The cabinet on Sunday held a lengthy discussion on how to encourage stricter adherence to virus-related restrictions in the ultra-Orthodox community and the matter is to be discussed again on Monday evening, according to an agenda released by the caretaker government.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, in Jerusalem, on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

Bnei Brak has seen the second highest number of infections in the country, according to Health Ministry figures, after only Jerusalem, where the coronavirus has also spread through the ultra-Orthodox community.

The city east of Tel Aviv is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, with 198,863 residents crammed in, at a rate of over 27,000 people per square kilometer, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.

The overwhelming majority of Bnei Brak residents are ultra-Orthodox, including members of some hardline sects who have resisted government directives shutting synagogues, schools, and houses of study. Some rabbinical leaders initially dismissed the panic over the virus, but most have since urged their followers to adhere to Health Ministry rules.

“Rabbi Kanievsky said there won’t be corona in Bnei Brak, so there won’t be corona in Bnei Brak,” one resident told the AFP news agency earlier this month, referring to Shmaryahu Yosef Chaim Kanievsky, a leader of the ultra-Orthodox community who initially told followers to continue to gather despite social distancing rules.

The virus has raced through other ultra-Orthodox communities as well, including the towns of Kfar Habad and Jerusalem suburb Kiryat Yearim.

Ultra-Orthodox patients make up around half the coronavirus patients being treated in various major hospitals around the country, according to unofficial figures cited by the two leading Israeli news channels on Sunday.

Channels 12 and 13 both reported similar percentages of ultra-Orthodox patients, who come from a community that makes up just 10 percent of the total Israeli population.

Police officers at a synagogue in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim, March 30, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Officials have attributed the high infection rates to a lack of adherence to Health Ministry guidelines (there have been many reports of large gatherings taking place in those communities for weddings, prayer services and other events in spite of announced restrictions), the crowded conditions in many ultra-Orthodox communities, and a lack of access by many to media and communication means.

The Health Ministry has stepped up efforts to inform the community in recent days, putting out posters in Yiddish and publishing statements from rabbis urging compliance.

Last week, police began enforcing stay-at-home orders, giving fines to anyone more than 100 meters (328 feet) from their homes except in special circumstances.

On several occasions, clashes have been reported between members of the communities and police forces attempting to enforce lockdown and distancing orders.

Daily life in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish town of Bnei Brak, on March 30, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

On Monday, a number of residents of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood threw rocks at a team of Magen David Adom medics performing a coronavirus test, lightly injuring one of them and damaging a car that accompanied them.

The incident came as police were cracking down on violations of government restrictions against gatherings in Mea Shearim, arresting four people and fining at least 30, amid an outcry against perceived inaction by law enforcement against segments of the Haredi population that has been flouting the coronavirus regulations.

Security forces arrest an ultra-Orthodox man as they close a synagogue in the Mea Shearim Ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem, on March 30, 2020 ( Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

Twenty-five fines of NIS 5,000 (about $1,400) were given for holding a gathering prohibited under health regulations, and five tickets for NIS 500 (about $140) were issued for individuals found to be more than 100 meters from their homes.

Police said Monday that nationwide, they have acted on eight reports of public prayers in a closed area. No further details were given on the location of the groups nor of the religion of those involved, but in video footage released by the police, they were seen shutting down at least one group in Bnei Brak.

In the most recent large-scale violation of government orders, residents of Bnei Brak on Sunday held a mass funeral procession and burial for Rabbi Tzvi Shenkar, a leading figure in the so-called Jerusalem Faction, a hardline Haredi group.

Police made no move to break up the procession, in which hundreds of people took part, drawing criticism. The force later defended the decision by saying a clash with the participants could have brought thousands to the streets and that it was therefore preferable to let the crowd disperse on its own.

Israel allows up to 20 people to attend a funeral, provided they maintain a distance of at least two meters (6.5 feet) from each other.

Attendees at a Bnei Brak funeral on March 29, 2020. (screen capture: Twitter)

Following the funeral on Sunday, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, who is responsible for the police, ordered an emergency meeting with the top brass and called for enforcement of the government’s orders “without exception.”

The issue of enforcement in the community is also expected to be discussed at Monday’s meeting.

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