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'We won't forget who turned us into enemies of the people'

Netanyahu cancels cabinet vote on local lockdowns as Haredim threaten rebellion

In unprecedented letter, 4 ultra-Orthodox mayors accuse PM of turning their community into national ‘punching bag,’ say they won’t cooperate with new restrictions

Police officers close synagogues and hand out fines to Haredi Jews in Jerusalem's Bukharim neighborhood, following government restrictions imposed as part of the effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus, April 6, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Police officers close synagogues and hand out fines to Haredi Jews in Jerusalem's Bukharim neighborhood, following government restrictions imposed as part of the effort to contain the spread of the coronavirus, April 6, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Facing a withering backlash by Haredi leaders over planned lockdowns of several towns experiencing high coronavirus infection rates, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called off a special Sunday cabinet meeting on the subject and is reportedly reconsidering the closures.

Four ultra-Orthodox mayors are threatening not to cooperate with the lockdowns, and in an extraordinary letter on Sunday warned the prime minister: “We will not forget who is the man who, time and again, signed onto turning us into disease vectors and enemies of the people.”

Netanyahu met Sunday afternoon with the heads of the two major ultra-Orthodox political parties, Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri of Shas, to hammer out a new policy toward so-called “red” municipalities — those with the highest infection rates — as he seeks to assuage rising anger in the Haredi street.

The meeting came shortly before the cabinet was to convene Sunday evening to vote to impose new lockdowns on 10 municipalities, including the Arab towns of Umm al-Fahm, Tira and Kfar Qassem, and the Haredi towns of Elad, Bnei Brak, Beitar Illit and Immanuel. Israel this weekend passed 1,000 COVID-19 fatalities.

Netanyahu’s apparent about-face came after Haredi leaders published an unprecedented open letter earlier Sunday accusing him of “trampling” their communities and “turning us into disease vectors and enemies of the people.”

The letter was signed by Bnei Brak Mayor Avraham Rubinstein, Beitar Illit Mayor Meir Rubinstein, Elad Mayor Israel Porush and Immanuel Mayor Eliyahu Gafni.

Screen capture from video of Bnei Brak Mayor Avraham Rubinstein during a ceremony to mark Israel’s Memorial Day, April 27, 2020. (Ynet)

“You never bothered to hear our voices, to understand our crisis, and to try to advance practical efforts to flatten the curve of infections, you weren’t listening and weren’t interested in learning,” the mayors charged.

Instead, Netanyahu “imposed one lockdown after another on Haredi cities, which never made a real difference — or we’d all have supported them with one voice and implemented them of our own accord.”

They accused Netanyahu of “trying to shift the media pressure to the weakest communities.

“We will stop cooperating with the various authorities,” they wrote, “on anything connected to the lockdown. The state’s agencies are welcome to act on their own, as they’ve done in any case over our heads. You yourself, personally, must take upon yourself the responsibility, prime minister.”

And they concluded: “The entire Haredi public will not forget the injustice being done to it. We will not forget who is the man who, time and again, signed onto turning us into disease vectors and enemies of the people through selective punishment of tens of thousands of families in the Haredi community. We see in you the lone perpetrator of these punishments.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) with then-health minister Yaakov Litzman, in Jerusalem, on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

The view expressed in the letter, they said, had gained the backing of the Haredi community’s top rabbis before it was sent.

Before the cancellation of Sunday’s coronavirus cabinet meeting, the government’s virus czar, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, was slated to present ministers with a list of eight to 10 localities that should be placed under full lockdown due to high infection rates.

A number of additional major population centers are also in danger of turning into “red” areas due to surging numbers of infections, including Ashdod, Beit Shemesh, Rahat and Netivot.

Gamzu clarified on Friday that the sweeping new restrictions approved by the so-called coronavirus cabinet in “red” localities with high infection rates would not be extended to all 30 cities and towns defined as high-infection places by Health Ministry figures.

The measures under discussion included banning entry and exit, keeping residents within 500 meters of their homes, stopping public transportation, and closing non-essential businesses and all schools save for daycare facilities and special education programs.

People wear face masks to prevent spread of the coronavirus in Bnei Brak, April 3, 2020 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The cities and towns designated “red” as of Sunday morning were: Kafr Qassem, Lakiya, Yakir, Ein Mahil, Daliyat al-Karmel, Tira, Kfar Aza, Jaljulya, Maale Iron, Emmanuel, Assafiya, Beit Jann, Kasra-Samia, Beitar Illit, Ka’abiyye-Tabbash-Hajajre, Tiberias, Umm al-Fahm, Fureidis, Buqata, Jatt, Rechasim, Aabalin, Kafr Kanna, Kafr Bara, Taibe, Bnei Brak, Arara, Zemer, Abu Snan, Qalansawe, Elad, Sheikh Danun and Nazareth.

Additionally, the following Jerusalem neighborhoods have been designated as “red”: the Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian Quarters of the Old City; Shuafat; Shuafat Refugee Camp and Anatot industrial zone; Issawiya; A-Tur; Al Shaykh; Al Sawana; Bab a-Zahara; Wadi al-Joz; and Sheikh Jarrah.

Most of the localities where the new restrictions were to take effect are majority-Arab and -ultra-Orthodox areas.

According to Channel 12 news, police presence was increased on Sunday morning in the cities with high infection rates in a bid to increase enforcement of regulations.

Border Police officers enforce coronavirus restrictions on Jaffa Street in Jerusalem on July 15, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Deri, the interior minister and Shas leader, came out Saturday night against the local lockdown plan and claimed only a nationwide lockdown could reduce the number of new COVID-19 cases per day.

“No one has succeeded in bringing down the numbers with another method,” Deri told Channel 12 news. “The plan isn’t the cure, it’s a tool for managing the crisis.”

Health Ministry director Chezy Levy said Friday that a nationwide lockdown to stem the spread of the virus was still on the table.

Israel on Saturday passed the grim landmark of 1,000 deaths due to the novel coronavirus, according to the Health Ministry, becoming the 49th country in the world to do so.

In all, 14 new deaths were recorded over Shabbat, bringing the number of people in Israel to have succumbed to COVID-19 to 1,007, a toll that rose on Sunday morning to 1,010.

Shamir Medical Center (Assaf Harofeh) team wearing protective clothes in the coronavirus ward of Shamir Medical Center (Assaf Harofeh), in Be’er Ya’akov, southeast of Tel Aviv, August 20, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Even as testing rates plummeted over the weekend to just 15,191 on Saturday, there were 1,482 new infections confirmed, the Health Ministry said Sunday morning. The percentage of positive tests stood at a worrying 9.8%.

In total there have been 129,349 cases since the start of the pandemic, 26,232 of which are active.

There were 445 patients hospitalized in serious condition, of whom 119 were being treated with ventilators, the Health Ministry said. Additionally, 155 people were in a moderate condition.

Israel currently has the highest rate of new infections per capita in the world, by weekly average.

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