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Lapid: Police should use water cannons to disperse illegal Haredi gatherings

Yesh Atid chief blasts lackluster enforcement against ultra-Orthodox violations of COVID-19 rules

MK Yair Lapid attends a Knesset plenary session at the Knesset in Jerusalem on August 24, 2020 (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL)
MK Yair Lapid attends a Knesset plenary session at the Knesset in Jerusalem on August 24, 2020 (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL)

Opposition leader Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party, said Friday police should be using water cannons to disperse illegal ultra-Orthodox gatherings in violation of coronavirus health regulations.

Speaking to Channel 12, Lapid, long known for his secularist stance and criticism of the country’s Haredi population, panned the lack of police enforcement against those ultra-Orthodox flouting the law and gathering in large numbers for events that have included weddings, funerals and religious celebrations.

“Everyone says, ‘But there are protests at Balfour,'” Lapid said, referring to ongoing demonstrations against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the Jerusalem street where his official residence is located, which have been cited by the right as examples of gatherings that should also be banned.

“I say, no problem. There are water cannons at Balfour? They should send the water cannons to these funerals and disperse them,” he said.

Police have been heavily criticized for their use of water cannons on several occasions at the anti-Netanyahu protests, including allegedly firing the powerful jets from far closer range than is allowed by regulations. Last Saturday night, police fired a water cannon at anti-Netanyahu demonstrators at an approved protest at Balfour Street; the next day, they did not intervene as thousands of ultra-Orthodox mourners crowded two funeral processions in quick succession for rabbis who died of COVID-19.

“Police cannot say ‘I won’t enforce the law.’ If police and the government had been resolute [on curbing Haredi violations] they wouldn’t have held these funerals in the first place,” Lapid said.

Over the course of the pandemic, there has been growing public anger over frequent large-scale violations of lockdown rules in the ultra-Orthodox community, as well as the government’s apparent reluctance to strongly enforce health rules in that community.

With morbidity in the ultra-Orthodox community far higher than in any other single societal group, Haredi lawmakers have decried attempts to more strongly enforce laws in their communities, and have claimed such efforts to be discriminatory and unhelpful.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, has been seen as unwilling to anger his Haredi political partners, without whose support he has no hope of remaining in power.

Police have been criticized for failing to take any action against several mass funerals that took place this week, while handing out many fines to people who weren’t in gatherings. In the case of the funerals of leading rabbis in Jerusalem, police told media outlets that dispersing the crowds would have caused “bloodshed.”

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox men attend the funeral of late Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik in Jerusalem, January 31, 2021, (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Figures released on Monday revealed that police were handing out proportionally far more fines in predominantly secular localities than in ultra-Orthodox ones.

According to Channel 13 news, there were 110 fines given in Herzliya per 10,000 residents in the month of January, 117 in Bat Yam and 155 in Tel Aviv. All three locations have a mainly secular population and have generally had relatively low rates of infection throughout the pandemic.

In contrast, there were just 59 fines handed out per 10,000 residents in the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, which has struggled with high levels of morbidity for large periods of the pandemic and is currently classified as a high infection locality.

Ultra-Orthodox demonstrators protest against the police enforcement of lockdown orders due to the coronavirus outbreak, in the city of Bnei Brak, January 24, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Last month saw violent clashes between police in Bnei Brak as protesters opposing lockdown regulations rioted in the city, including setting fire to a bus.

On Sunday, Defense Minister Benny Gantz lambasted the government’s “fake lockdown” and “unequal enforcement” as the Knesset passed a bill stepping up enforcement of the lockdown by doubling fines for violators.

Anger over disregard shown in parts of the Haredi community toward coronavirus restrictions reached new heights on Sunday when authorities failed to stop the two large Haredi funerals from taking place, with thousands of people, many maskless, breaking lockdown regulations and failing to observe any social distancing, creating major health hazards.

Ultra-Orthodox men attend the funeral of late Rabbi Yitzchok Sheiner, in Jerusalem, January 31, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The disparity in policing was revealed as data released Monday showed that almost a quarter of all new Israeli coronavirus patients are from the ultra-Orthodox community, highlighting the disastrous spread of COVID-19 through Haredi cities and neighborhoods.

The Health Ministry’s data, based on averages of new cases over the last week, showed that 23 percent of new cases were from people who come from areas that are predominantly Haredi, even though just 12% of Israelis belong to the ultra-Orthodox community.

Nathan Jeffay contributed to this report.

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