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MK Gafni calls prime minister a ‘murderer’ due to recent COVID deaths

Ultra-Orthodox lawmaker later takes back the term, but insists Bennett ‘guilty’ of coronavirus fatalities

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni attends a plenary session at the assembly hall of the Knesset, July 26, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni attends a plenary session at the assembly hall of the Knesset, July 26, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

United Torah Judaism leader MK Moshe Gafni called Prime Minister Naftali Bennett the “murderer” of Israelis who have recently died of the coronavirus.

Though he agreed to immediately retract the remark, he insisted Bennett was directly responsible for the deaths.

Speaking during an overnight session Tuesday in the Knesset to vote on reform in the rabbinical court system, the ultra-Orthodox Gafni attacked the coalition led by Bennett, holding it responsible for a surge in COVID-19 cases that began around the same time that the new government was installed.

“Those who are dying now of the coronavirus — it is because of Naftali Bennett,” Gafni said. “He is their murderer, he is the one causing people to die.”

Deputy Knesset Speaker MK Ahmad Tibi (Joint List) asked Gafni to retract the remark, which he did, saying instead that Bennett “is guilty of those who are dying now of the coronavirus.”

“I won’t say murderer, you said not to say that,” Gafni said, addressing Tibi. “But I intend that.”

Claiming that under the previous government, of which his UTJ party was a member, COVID-19 cases had dropped to “nearly zero,” while the latest Health Ministry figures show that there were over 2,000 new cases diagnosed on Monday, Gafni said Bennett has “no help from above,” an apparent jab at Bennett’s Modern Orthodox religious beliefs.

During previous waves of COVID-19 over the past year and a half the ultra-Orthodox community saw higher-than-average infection rates, which were blamed by some on unwillingness by the community to obey health orders on social distancing and against public gatherings.

The rabbinical court reform bill passed 59-54. It expands the panel that chooses rabbinical judges to include more representatives from the government and more female representatives.

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett seen during a plenary session at the assembly hall of the Knesset, July 26, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gafni’s remarks about Bennett came the day after Tibi ordered far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir ejected from the Knesset plenum because he called the deputy speaker “a terrorist” and refused to retract the accusation.

Ben Gvir, who took to the podium during a debate on coronavirus restrictions, began his address by saying, “With the permission of the Knesset speaker, Mr. minister, your excellency,” referring to the dignitaries in the hall but notably not to Tibi, who, as deputy Knesset speaker, was filling in at the time for speaker Mickey Levy.

Tibi, who heads the Ta’al faction in the predominantly Arab Israeli Joint List party, interrupted Ben Gvir and demanded to be addressed as “Mr. Deputy Speaker,” as is Knesset tradition.

Ben Gvir responded, “You are a terrorist, not a sir or a mister. You should be in the Knesset in Syria, not here.”

Tibi ordered the Knesset Guard to remove Ben Gvir from the podium and then the plenum, but the firebrand MK held on to the podium before being physically dragged from the hall. Levy, who arrived at Tibi’s side, appeared to back him up as Tibi repeatedly demanded that Ben Gvir be forcibly removed from the plenum.

Health officials have linked a recent spike in infections in Israel to travelers who brought back new variants of the virus from abroad and did not properly quarantine after arriving.

There were 2,124 new cases diagnosed on Monday, according to the Health Ministry.

Figures released Tuesday showed the number of active virus cases was at 13,725 with 147 people in serious condition.

The number of COVID patients in serious condition has doubled in just the past 10 days, but is still a fraction of the peak seen during the third wave, in January, when there were more than 1,200 serious cases. During the second wave in the fall, serious cases hit a peak of 850 in October.

Since the start of the pandemic, 864,912 people have been diagnosed with COVID-19 in Israel, and there have been 6,461 deaths. There were no further deaths on Monday, according to the ministry figures.

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