Police dispersed hundreds of worshipers who gathered near a synagogue in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Modiin Illit in violation of lockdown restrictions in the early hours of Friday morning.
Police had arrived to clear out dozens of worshipers inside the synagogue who refused to leave the building, according to multiple reports. This then developed into scuffles with hundreds who congregated in protest.
Most of the worshipers were from the hardline Jerusalem Faction community, according to the Ynet news site.
Police arrested 20 people during the scuffles, according to Channel 13 news.
Some of the worshippers called police “Nazis” and “murderers,” the network said.
Footage from the scene showed police in riot gear scuffling with young men outside the building, and worshipers singing and dancing outdoors, some wearing masks, and some without.
— ynet עדכוני (@ynetalerts) October 8, 2020
— ynet עדכוני (@ynetalerts) October 8, 2020
The lockdown restrictions, imposed under a government-declared emergency, limit large gatherings, indoor prayers at synagogues and visiting others’ sukkahs over the week-long Sukkot holiday, which began last Friday night.
The rules also bar Israelis from traveling more than a kilometer from their homes, including for protests. The restrictions will be in place at least until October 13.
Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community has faced mounting criticism over widespread disregard for rules put in place by the government to combat the coronavirus, and with infections in their community rapidly spreading.
Efforts by police to enforce the lockdown have met resistance from ultra-Orthodox community members who want to mark the Sukkot holiday as usual, as well as from anti-government demonstrators who oppose the restrictions placed on their right to protest.
The police action in Modiin Illit early Friday morning followed the Wednesday release of a leaked call which indicated police were turning a blind eye to lockdown violations by ultra-Orthodox worshipers at synagogues in the West Bank city.
The ultra-Orthodox website Charedim10 published a transcript of the call between a police officer and an unidentified member of a hardline Jerusalem Faction community in the settlement. A recording of the call was then broadcast by Channel 12, which identified the officer as the police chief in Modiin Illit, Tzahi Halfon, and said he was talking to a local ultra-Orthodox representative.
In the call, which reportedly took place on Sunday, Halfon is heard urging worshipers not to argue or fight with policemen if they arrive to break up gatherings, heavily hinting that the worshipers can do whatever they want once the cops leave.
The conversation apparently did not have the desired effect, Channel 12 said, reporting that clashes broke out between members of the hardline ultra-Orthodox faction and the police in the town overnight Tuesday-Wednesday because congregants refused to disperse when cops were called to a synagogue where prayers were being held.
Following the publication of the story, police said an inquiry had been opened into the officer’s conduct.
The news followed a report earlier this week by the Haaretz daily, which said that ahead of the Sukkot holiday, Jerusalem police made a deal with some extremist ultra-Orthodox communities, under which they could hold mass events despite the national lockdown, on condition that the gatherings not be publicized.
That report, which police adamantly denied, was based on two sources inside the ultra-Orthodox community, the newspaper said.
In a separate incident in Jerusalem, the leader of the Belz Hasidic sect, along with some of his associates, were photographed at the Western Wall this week, well beyond the 1 kilometer limit from their homes, Channel 12 said on Thursday.
ההפרות של בכירי המדינה והסלבס נבחנות עכשיו בשבע עיניים ובצדק, אז אולי הגיע הזמן לדבר על רכבת האדמו״רים והמקושרים שהגיעו לכותל השבוע, הרחק ממגבלת הקילומטר שבו הם מתגוררים.
בתמונה: האדמו״ר מבעלז, ללא מסכה, בכניסה לכותל כעת pic.twitter.com/pLSV0Og2YM
— יאיר שרקי (@yaircherki) October 8, 2020
A Thursday report from Army Radio said that 69 percent of new coronavirus cases diagnosed in Jerusalem in the past week were from ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.
Only 30% of Jerusalem residents live in the neighborhoods defined as ultra-Orthodox in the data, said the report, which did not cite the source.
The figure did not include ultra-Orthodox residents of the capital who reside in mixed neighborhoods with significant non-ultra-Orthodox populations, meaning the actual proportion of infections in the community is almost certainly even higher.
The report attributed the surge in cases to gatherings during the recent Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur holidays, as well as to the crowded conditions and typically large families in ultra-Orthodox areas.
Slightly less than 50% of virus tests carried out in Jerusalem in the past week were administered in ultra-Orthodox areas.
Around 10% of new Jerusalem infections were in Arab-majority areas, indicating a significant decrease in morbidity in those areas, the report said.
The ultra-Orthodox have seen sky-high coronavirus infection rates with an assessment last week finding that the rate of infection in the community is 2.5 times that of the national average.
Spiraling infections across the country prompted the current lockdown, the second this year. Although initially scheduled to be lifted at the end of the Sukkot holiday, officials have said it will continue for at least a week longer before any easing of restrictions takes place.
On Thursday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the ultra-Orthodox public to stick to the rules this weekend while marking the festival of Simchat Torah, when worshipers traditionally gather at synagogues and circle the prayer hall en masse holding Torah scrolls.
“I ask of everyone who is listening, protect yourselves — no dancing on Simchat Torah,” Netanyahu told Kol Barama radio. “There is no greater blasphemy than for us to lose lives due to Simchat Torah. Pray outside, keep to the rules, and sanctify both the Torah and the value of life.”