Bnei Brak remained closed off Saturday as police continued to enforce the city’s new status as a “restricted zone” due to the high prevalence of coronavirus in the population.
Police said they were minimizing their presence inside the ultra-Orthodox city in order to respect the Sabbath, while maintaining some patrols to prevent breaches of Health Ministry guidelines.
Meanwhile in Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighborhood, police arrested 10 people accused of assaulting officers and interfering with their efforts to enforce restrictions.
On Friday, police forces disrupted several unlawful gatherings and prayers in the neighborhood held in spite of the countrywide ban. According to Channel 12 news, some residents hurled rocks at officers and at certain points police used riot-dispersal measures to manage the crowds.
A top ultra-Orthodox rabbi on Thursday attacked the ban on all group prayers which came into effect this week, claiming they were rooted in “a hatred and persecution of religion.”
According to the Ynet news site, Rabbi Zion Boaron, a former judge on a rabbinic court and a senior figure in the Sephardic ultra-Orthodox community, claimed in a letter to ultra-Orthodox lawmakers that the restrictions were “destroying religion” and asserted that the Haredi public was seeing far more enforcement than other sectors of the public. He added that “only through prayer and cries to the almighty” will the people be saved.
On Friday the deputy mayor of Bnei Brak called the decision to close off his city “a death trap for the city’s elderly” and urged the governments to consider other ways to stop the spread of coronavirus.
His call came as the government tasked the Israel Defense Forces with formally providing “civil assistance” to residents of Bnei Brak as police established checkpoints at the entrances and exits of the ultra-Orthodox city on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.
Gedalyahu Ben Shimon said the lockdown has caused uncertainty, leading “many city residents to flood a limited number of supermarkets, thus increasing the danger of infection.”
“As opposed to a curfew, where the army takes full responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of residents and provides them with food and medicine, here they’ve taken a half-measure that raises the odds of contagion and could cost human lives. A course correction is required,” he said.
The head of the IDF Home Front Command, Maj. Gen. Tamir Yadai, confirmed that the army would only be supplying necessities to the most at-risk people.
Yadai stressed that while the city is effectively cut off, life within Bnei Brak is allowed to continue under the same restrictions as exist in the rest of the country, so people are still allowed to shop for food and other necessities. This means that while soldiers are delivering food and medicine to at-risk residents, they do not need to supply food to the entire population of roughly 200,000 people.
Most of the army effort would focus on helping evacuate the sick and elderly from the city, he said, adding, “No one will be evacuated by force, only voluntarily.”
The effort was being coordinated with the Bnei Brak municipality — specifically the head of the city’s coronavirus task force, Maj. Gen. (res.) Roni Numa — with the Magen David Adom ambulance service, Health Ministry, Israel Police and other government offices, he said.
During the closure, aid services and providers of essential supplies will be allowed in, as well as journalists. The closure will initially last for seven days, with the option to be extended by ministers by five days at a time.
With its population of 200,000, Bnei Brak has seen the second-highest number of infections of all Israeli cities in total numbers, and the highest rate by far per capita.
On Friday, the Health Ministry said there were 966 virus cases in Bnei Brak, 418 of which were confirmed in the past three days.
Attempts to remove some of the ill to quarantine hotels were not going very well, Yadai conceded, noting that some families have eight or 10 children that need to be cared for. “The efforts are ongoing but it’s not a rousing success so far,” he said.
However, he reaffirmed that the IDF won’t use force on Bnei Brak residents.
“We won’t arrest people,” he told reporters. “We won’t do anything with force… I hope we get all the sick out of Bnei Brak.”
Yadai said the military anticipated being sent to additional parts of the country that were struggling with the pandemic, noting the towns of Elad, Migdal Ha’Emek and parts of Jerusalem were possible locations.
Police have continued to operate and try and enforce the social distancing guidelines, with some members of the ultra-Orthodox community continuing to resist bans on communal prayer and holding mass services despite restrictions. Police have been increasing enforcement, handing out fines and closing down rule-breaking institutions.
Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.