Top rabbis urge follows to stay away from violent protests

Police, firefighters stood by for an hour as ultra-Orthodox mob torched bus

Ignoring pleas by Bnei Brak residents, fire crew stationed down the street refused to intervene, citing police orders; fire burned through power lines, approached buildings

A bus set alight by an ultra-Orthodox mob in the city of Bnei Brak, January 24, 2021. (Israel Police)
A bus set alight by an ultra-Orthodox mob in the city of Bnei Brak, January 24, 2021. (Israel Police)

Firefighters situated down the street from an ultra-Orthodox riot on Sunday night refused to extinguish a bus set on fire by the mob for an hour, despite frantic pleas from local residents, according to Hebrew media reports on Monday.

Police also largely avoided the area, allowing the rioting against the lockdown rules and the arson to continue late into the night.

According to a report by the Haaretz daily, the mob pulled a driver from his bus and beat him, lightly injuring him, around midnight. It was the second such attack against a bus driver, following a similar unprovoked assault by the rioters in the early evening.

The crowds of ultra-Orthodox youth then began attempting to set the vehicle on fire. At that point, a firefighting truck passed by, but police ordered it to return to the station down the street, according to Haaretz.

An hour and a half later, around 1:30 a.m., with no police officers in sight, the arson attempt was successful and the bus went up in flames, with the fire burning through electric poles and coming dangerously close to nearby residential buildings.

“My husband called the fire department and they told him the police don’t allow them to come,” one local resident told the paper. “After half an hour, he called again when the flames reached the fourth floor and we were frightened. They arrived only an hour later, when the bus was a [burnt] hull.”

Other residents ran down the street to the fire station to plead with the firefighters to put out the flaming bus, but were rebuffed. The firefighters said the police had barred them from entering the scene of the clashes.

An hour later, at 2:30 a.m., police arrived at the scene and began hurling stun grenades to disperse the riot. Four people were arrested. Firefighters under police cover then put out the fire.

Ultra-Orthodox protesters set a bus on fire during a protest against the enforcement of the coronavirus lockdown, in the city of Bnei Brak, January 25, 2021. (Screen capture/ Twitter)

The vehicle was completely gutted before firefighters reached the scene, with the flames burning through nearby electric cables and causing a blackout in parts of the ultra-Orthodox city, located near Tel Aviv. Several residents of nearby buildings were evacuated amid fears the bus could explode.

The riot sent shockwaves around the country and prompted fears of continued violence.

Ultra-Orthodox leaders blamed police for the violence, but on Monday tried to quell the tensions.

A letter by top ultra-Orthodox rabbis Chaim Kanievsky and Gershon Edelstein ordering their followers not to partake in demonstrations or clashes with police was set to be publicized in Haredi newspapers on Tuesday, according to reports. The Bnei Brak rioters, however, were said to be affiliated with Hasidic groups and the hardline Jerusalem Faction, which are not beholden to Kanievsky’s and Edelstein’s rulings.

Kanievsky also invited the driver of the bus for a meeting and blessing, according to Channel 12.

Eyal Tzipori, a driver whose bus was attacked by an ultra-Orthodox mob in Bnei Brak on January 24, 2021, describes the incident on January 25, 2021. (Channel 12 screenshot)

The driver, Eyal Tzipori, told Channel 12 on Monday evening that he had feared for his life. He said he called the police, but waited in vain for officers to arrive. He then got off the bus, was attacked, took refuge back in the vehicle, and was ultimately extricated by two paramedics.

The bus was then set alight by the mob. “I won’t drive that route anymore,” he said.

Police said in a statement that four people were arrested on suspicion of damaging property, including the arson attack on the bus, as well as attempting to harm emergency workers and endangering the public.

Tzipori, 41, described the encounter as “a nightmare, something out of this world.”

“I am injured mentally and physically. I got out of there by the skin of my teeth,” he told Channel 13 news on Monday morning.

The crowd smashed all of the windows of the bus, covering him with broken glass.

“They started to attack me with punches and kicks, clubs and pepper spray. I couldn’t believe that I was in such a situation,” he said. “I wanted to just turn around and dash away from the area but I didn’t manage to.”

Tzipori, a driver for the Afikim company, said he was on the phone for half an hour with a police call center, but help did not arrive.

“Two hundred people tried to lynch me — a wild mob, crazy, animals. I don’t know how I got out of there, I have no idea. I won’t be going back to work soon.”

Deputy CEO of Afikim Shai Malka said in a statement that the company was “shocked” at the events in Bnei Brak and at “the increasing violence against bus drivers in general, in particular during this complicated period.”

Malka said the company would hold a situational assessment on Tuesday, and together with the Transportation Ministry would review its service to Bnei Brak, as well as other areas where there has been violence against drivers and property.

The bus arson was the second attack on a bus in a matter of hours. Earlier, protesters threw rocks at a bus and commandeered it, forcing the driver to flee, according to Hebrew media reports.

Demonstrators also pushed dumpsters into the street and lit them ablaze, with one video showing officers being targeted with firecrackers.

In Jerusalem, ultra-Orthodox protesters vandalized the city’s light-rail system, part of an ongoing protest against a new line that is supposed to run through their insular neighborhoods.

Also on Sunday, a policeman shot in the air after rioters surrounded and shoved him and other cops while enforcing lockdown rules in Bnei Brak.

Police said they would not be deterred by violence and vowed to continue to enforce the national coronavirus lockdown.

The latest clashes came after lawmakers from the United Torah Judaism party and other Haredi officials held a meeting on the roof of the Bnei Brak city hall, placing the blame for the ongoing violence squarely on cops and not the protesters.

“The Israel Police bears the blame for the catastrophe taking place in our city for several days,” said Bnei Brak Mayor Abraham Rubinstein, who was himself attacked by an angry crowd when he later came out to try and call for calm.

Some threw refuse and rocks at him, while others fired firecrackers at his entourage. His bodyguards had to use pepper spray to extricate him from the scene.

He accused police of engaging in “provocative activity” and “collective punishment” against Bnei Brak’s residents and called on them to leave the city.

Among the UTJ lawmakers in attendance were Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman and MK Moshe Gafni, close political allies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Police officers stand guard next to burning garbage during clashes with ultra-Orthodox Jews in Bnei Brak, Israel, January 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

“It is inconceivable that the police, because of a violation on the beach in Tel Aviv, will close off a neighborhood and shoot explosives there and smoke grenades and spray [mace] as they did here in Bnei Brak on Thursday night and today,” Gafni said.

Gafni also said prominent Rabbi Kanievsky had called for a halt to both the protests and “the terrible things” he alleged police were doing to Bnei Brak residents.

Critics have accused Netanyahu of avoiding cracking down on the Haredi public in order not to anger his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.

Netanyahu on Monday night condemned the riot and said those responsible would be brought to justice.

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