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Knesset vote on higher fines for virus violations stalled amid Haredi opposition

Ministers approve measure, but meeting to prepare bill put off; Netanyahu to seek compromise in meeting with United Torah Judaism chiefs

Shas party chairman and Interior Affairs Minister, Aryeh Deri, left, speaks with United Torah Judaism party leader, then health minister, Yaakov Litzman in the Knesset, March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)
Shas party chairman and Interior Affairs Minister, Aryeh Deri, left, speaks with United Torah Judaism party leader, then health minister, Yaakov Litzman in the Knesset, March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

Ministers on Monday approved higher fines for violations of coronavirus lockdown restrictions, targeting businesses, public events, and education institutions — but a bill on the measure was stalled due to resistance from ultra-Orthodox lawmakers, who oppose the hike in fines for schools.

After it was approved by the so-called coronavirus cabinet, the bill to increase the fines was scheduled to go the Ministerial Committee for Legislation and from there to the Knesset plenum for approval later in the day. However, the committee meeting was put off until Tuesday, apparently amid pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was reportedly set to meet with leaders of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party to discuss the matter. UTJ, a member of the government coalition, has already said it would oppose the bill, while the Shas party, also ultra-Orthodox, will reportedly consult with its spiritual leadership before deciding how to vote.

The Haredi parties say the regulations single out their community since the majority of institutions found to be violating the rules so far have been ultra-Orthodox.

After over a month of national lockdown that succeeded in curbing high infection rates but also paralyzed much of the economy and public life, the government has struggled to agree on how to ease the restrictions, with pressure from some ministers to quickly lift the closure facing opposition from other cabinet members — among them the prime minister — who want to move more cautiously.

People wearing face masks walk outside the central bus station in downtown Jerusalem on November 01, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The new regulations, if approved, would increase the fine for opening a business or operating a site open to the public from NIS 5,000 ($1,467) to NIS 10,000 ($2,935).

The current NIS 5,000 fine for holding a party, conference, ceremony, festival, entertainment or art show in violation of the rules would be increased to NIS 20,000 ($5,870).

Similarly, the fine for defying the ban on opening education institutions (other than preschools and grades 1-4) will be upped from NIS 5,000 to NIS 20,000.

At Monday’s cabinet meeting, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who leads Shas, pleaded against increasing the fines for education institutions, according to leaks from the meeting reported by Hebrew media.

Deri, the only ultra-Orthodox member of the condensed forum of ministers tasked with handling the virus outbreak, claimed the upped fine for schools was aimed specifically at Haredim.

“Regrettably, when talking about education institutions the intention is the Talmud Torahs,” he reportedly said, referring to ultra-Orthodox schools for boys up to the age of 15.

“A special category of fines for education institutions is a terrible mistake,” Deri said. “It’s wrong for a Jewish state and it’s wrong for Israel.”

The chairman of the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, Yaakov Asher, confirmed in a statement that his UTJ party will oppose the bill and accused the Health Ministry, which is pushing for the increased fines, of being “divorced from practicality and from life itself.”

The decision to raise the fines “contributes nothing to the fight against disease,” he said.

At the meeting, ministers were presented with figures showing that Israel’s basic reproduction number, or the rate of new cases stemming from each coronavirus infection, had reached the level at which health officials have previously said they would recommend scaling back some of the steps taken to ease the lockdown.

National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat. (Amos Ben Gerschom/GPO)

Meir Ben-Shabbat, head of the National Security Council, reportedly confirmed that the R-number for transmission was “at least” 0.8 and that although the number of new cases was not yet trending upwards, the rate of decrease had slowed.

The reopening of schools in May, after the first nationwide closure, and again in September at the start of the school year, was blamed for upticks in virus cases around the country. Many ultra-Orthodox schools for boys reopened earlier this month in defiance of the government rules. Since the start of the pandemic, synagogue worship has also been linked to the spread of the virus.

Israel sharply brought down its daily COVID-19 infection rates from some 8,000 in mid-September to several hundred by late October with a nationwide lockdown, which it began to gradually ease two weeks ago. So far, only preschools and grades 1-4 have been permitted to restart. Other grades have continued with remote learning, though there is little infrastructure or willingness to use online learning in the ultra-Orthodox community.

According to Health Ministry data on Monday, the rate of positive tests had risen from around two percent throughout last week to 2.9% on Saturday and 3.1% on Sunday.

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