Clashes broke out on Tuesday night in Jerusalem between police and ultra-Orthodox protesters opposed to coronavirus lockdown restrictions.
Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox men gathered in the capital’s Shabbat Square in the Mea Shearim neighborhood to protest the lockdown rules aimed at curbing a high rate of coronavirus infections, especially restrictions against opening schools.
An initial protest was organized with the approval of police and included speeches from community leaders. The demonstrators packed together tightly and almost none wore face masks.
At the end of the demonstration, hundreds of the protesters made their way to the nearby Bar Ilan street, where fighting broke out between them and police. Some demonstrators blocked traffic, burned trash bins, damaged vehicles and heaved stones and other objects at officers.
Police used water cannons to disperse the protest and arrested at least one person on suspicion of disturbing public order.
Critics of the police, including opposition leader Yair Lapid, have recently called for police to use water cannons to disperse illegal ultra-Orthodox gatherings. Officers have drawn criticism for aggressively using water cannons against anti-Netanyahu protesters, but not against ultra-Orthodox gatherings.
Over the course of the pandemic, there has been growing public anger over frequent large-scale violations of lockdown rules in parts of the ultra-Orthodox community, as well as the government’s apparent reluctance to strongly enforce health rules in that community.
There have been widespread violations of coronavirus regulations in Israel, but the most flagrant have been in parts of the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community. Some Haredi groups largely adhere to the restrictions, while others ignore them, including by opening schools and holding massive funerals.
Recent weeks have seen several Haredi funerals for top rabbis who died of COVID-19 attended by thousands despite the national lockdown to prevent the virus from spreading. Outdoor gatherings were restricted to just 10 people; some of the funerals of the leading rabbis drew more than 10,000.
There have also been violent riots against police, including clashes in Bnei Brak that saw ultra-Orthodox men torch a bus and attack its driver and a passerby.
Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash on Tuesday warned the ultra-Orthodox community that large crowds such as those at the funerals would further spread the coronavirus and lead to additional deaths.
Ash noted that while the morbidity rate in the Haredi community, which has been far higher than the national average, is dropping, it “is still high and worrying.”
Despite morbidity in the ultra-Orthodox community being higher than in any other single societal group, Haredi lawmakers have decried attempts to enforce the virus guidelines in their communities, and have labeled such efforts discriminatory and unhelpful.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, meanwhile, has been seen as unwilling to anger his Haredi political partners, without whose support he has no hope of remaining in power.
Israel is still under lockdown orders, the third since the start of the pandemic, though some restrictions were rolled back at the beginning of the week. The country is also pushing a mass vaccination program that has so far inoculated over a fifth of the population.
Since the start of the outbreak 703,719 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in Israel and there have been 5,216 deaths, according to Health Ministry figures released Tuesday.