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'I got out of there by the skin of my teeth'

Driver recounts ‘nightmare’ after Haredi mob torches his bus at lockdown protest

Says 200 rioters ‘tried to lynch me’; blazing vehicle burns through power cables; mayor blames police for violence, is also attacked by crowd

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)

Police used stun grenades to clear ultra-Orthodox rioters from the streets of Bnei Brak early Monday after a group attacked two buses, setting one on fire and completely destroying it.

The mob pulled a driver from his bus and beat him, lightly injuring him before setting the vehicle on fire.

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 half-an-hour in vain for them 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.

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 vehicle was completely gutted before firefighters could reach 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.

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.

He said he was following a route from Ashdod to Bnei Brak and completed the journey without incident. It was on the way back that he encountered protesters.

He said the “angry mob were taking out their rage on me.”

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. 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 of 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 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 also 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.

The scenes of destruction came after a day of fierce clashes between police and rioters who opposed lockdown restrictions, with top ultra-Orthodox officials on Sunday blaming police for the tensions.

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 as 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 people.

He accused police of engaging in “provocative activity” and “collective punishment” against the city’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, Jan. 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 Haredi Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky called for a halt to both the protests and “the terrible things” he alleged police were doing to Bnei Brak residents.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu was asked about his conversations with leading rabbis and why he recently spoke with Kanievsky’s grandson about closing schools during the lockdown and not the rabbi himself.

“Rabbi Kanievsky isn’t available. Everyone who speaks with him speaks with the grandson. I also spoke with the grandson. I don’t see this as an insult,” he said during a press conference.

Ultra-Orthodox Israelis clash with police during a protest against the enforcement of the coronavirus lockdown, in the city of Bnei Brak, January 24, 2021 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Responding to mounting criticism against him, Netanyahu added: “I didn’t beg… I said follow the guidelines. That’s my message to the rabbi and he passed on the message I hope. I don’t know if it will have an impact.”

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

Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky attends a campaign event for the ultra-Orthodox Degel HaTorah party in the northern city of Safed on February 26, 2020. (David Cohen/Flash90)

On Sunday, ultra-Orthodox TV interviewees used Holocaust imagery to describe alleged excessive force used by cops, as they faced accusations of rampant violence against police officers doing their job trying to enforce the coronavirus lockdown.

Nathan Rosenblatt, a resident of Modiin Illit, told Channel 12 new about “the Kristallnacht that the police carried out in Bnei Brak last week,” referring to the “night of broken glass” in 1938 when Nazi forces destroyed Jewish property in Germany, including hundreds of synagogues and thousands of businesses, and arrested more than 30,000 Jewish men.

A representative of the extremist Jerusalem Faction accused cops of carrying out “pogroms,” in an interview with the network.

In Jerusalem, ultra-Orthodox protesters also 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.

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

The incident took place amid clashes in at least three cities across Israel as police attempted to enforce coronavirus lockdown restrictions.

Police said the officer felt a “stab” in the back with a blunt object and therefore fired shots in the air to drive the protesters back.

A police statement said a cop suffered head injuries during the clashes and received medical care.

“We will work to locate and fully bring the lawbreakers to justice,” police said.

A police officer points his gun in the air during a clash with ultra-Orthodox rioters protesting the enforcement of a lockdown ordered due to the coronavirus, in the city of Bnei Brak, January 24, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

During the clashes in Bnei Brak, extremist ultra-Orthodox mobs attacked reporters and photographers for major networks Channel 13 and the Kan public broadcaster, throwing various objects at them, including rocks.

Footage showed the journalists running along the street, unable to flee the attacks, asking store owners for shelter.

The head of the police investigations division, Roy Waldman, said in an interview with Channel 13 news that “there’s anarchy in the streets” and decried what he called “a state within a state.” He singled out the hardline Jerusalem Faction group and the Vizhnitz Hasidic dynasty.

Yaakov Litzman (Olivier FitoussiFlash90)

Litzman, speaking at the Sunday night meeting in Bnei Brak, said the resort to the use of guns was unacceptable. “Next, the defense minister will be calling in the air force,” he charged.

Last week, clashes broke out between police and rioters opposed to coronavirus lockdown restrictions in Bnei Brak, after a mob in the city injured a police officer on patrol. At least six people were arrested for disturbing the peace. Those rioters belonged to an extremist faction of the Vizhnitz hasidic sect, according to Hebrew media reports.

There have since been multiple additional reports of lockdown violations among the ultra-Orthodox, including a mass wedding Sunday in Beit Shemesh broken up by police, leading to clashes.

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