Ultra-Orthodox hold 3rd straight night of protests in Jerusalem against lockdown
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Ultra-Orthodox hold 3rd straight night of protests in Jerusalem against lockdown

Police arrest 16, as trash cans burned amid mounting anger at government ‘discrimination’; many in community said to use unapproved COVID-19 test to evade quarantine

Border Police officers scuffle with ultra-Orthodox Jews during a protest against the closure on the Romema and Kiryat Belz neighborhoods of Jerusalem, July 13, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Border Police officers scuffle with ultra-Orthodox Jews during a protest against the closure on the Romema and Kiryat Belz neighborhoods of Jerusalem, July 13, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Ultra-Orthodox men and boys in Jerusalem staged protests against government lockdowns for the third evening in a row on Monday, with police arresting 16.

Dozens gathered at the entrance to the Romema neighborhood, chanted slogans against police forces and the government and burned dumpsters.

Some kicked burning dumpsters on wheels toward Border Police forces, who, in some cases, kicked them back.

“We won’t give up, this is a war for our home and we won’t allow discrimination in the Jewish state,” a protester told ultra-Orthodox news site Kikar Hashabbat. “We will take every measure until the lockdown is lifted and police start treating us like human beings.”

On Friday, lockdowns went into effect in select neighborhoods in five cities, including Haredi enclaves in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh. The government had also previously sealed off the ultra-Orthodox West Bank settlement of Beitar Illit, and ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Ashdod.

On Saturday, 10 people were arrested as ultra-Orthodox demonstrators clashed with police. Hundreds of protesters blocked the intersection of Yirmiyahu and Shamgar streets, and threw stones, eggs, and other objects at officers who were responding to the situation, the Israel Police said in a statement. Some of the protesters tore down police barricades that had been set up to enforce the lockdowns, the statement said.

On Sunday, at least two more people were arrested, as hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews set trash cans on fire and knocked down barriers to protest the closures.

Border Police officers scuffle with ultra-Orthodox Jews during a protest against the closure on the Romema and Kiryat Belz neighborhoods of Jerusalem, July 13, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Meanwhile, Channel 13 reported Monday that unauthorized home coronavirus tests were becoming a hit in ultra-Orthodox areas, and were being used as a tool to evade government-mandated quarantines.

Even though the kits have an estimated accuracy of just 75 percent, various ads in recent days call on Haredi people to get tested using them, with a promise not to inform authorities if the result is positive, the report said.

The kits are being sold en masse for some NIS 200 ($58) apiece, it added.

Earlier Monday, ultra-Orthodox lawmakers demanded that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu work to stop what they called biased and selective enforcement of public health regulations that unfairly targets their community.

MKs from the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ) parties met Netanyahu alongside Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, following days of complaints and even threats by some lawmakers that they could bolt the coalition.

Shas party leader Aryeh Deri at the party’s election-night headquarters, March 2, 2020. (Flash90)

“Discrimination is being enforced against the ultra-Orthodox community,” Shas head and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri said at the meeting, according to a statement his office released on Monday afternoon. “I call on the prime minister and the public security minister to work for equal enforcement.

“A closure carried out without any aid package does not achieve its goal and harms the entire public,” he said, referring to the recent closures of several ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh.

During the height of the first wave, the cities of Beit Shemesh, Elad and Modiin Illit each had more active cases than Tel Aviv, the country’s second-largest population center. In April, the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak was put under a closure order, as were several predominantly Hasidic neighborhoods in Beit Shemesh.

In a statement after Monday’s meeting, UTJ said that “imposing a closure on ultra-Orthodox population concentrations is evading responsibility. This is a behavior that harms the public and is not effective in combating the coronavirus. Our demand is for action to be transparent and egalitarian, and to remove sectarian closures.”

Illustrative: Border police officers block a main road following the government’s measures to help stop the spread of the coronavirus, in Bnei Brak, April 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty,)

The current approach, the party said, was “unjustified, disproportionate, tainted with selective discrimination and undermines public trust in the system.”

According to UTJ, Edelstein replied that his ministry would “work to fix this.”

In a statement, the Prime Minister’s Office said that prior to future closures, consultations would be held with representatives of the ultra-Orthodox community, and, if possible, command centers would be opened in the affected communities themselves.

“I asked to meet here to hear from you and so that we can address your distress; I know it is real and it touches our hearts,” Netanyahu said. “We want to help, no one wants to be harassed… and I am open to listening.”

The MKs also complained of brutality against members of the ultra-Orthodox community by police enforcing virus restrictions.

Ultra-Orthodox protesters clash with police in Jerusalem over localized lockdowns of their neighborhoods, due to the spread of the coronavirus, July 11, 2020. (Israel Police)

Last Sunday, police announced a plan to step up enforcement of social distancing guidelines meant to curb the spread of coronavirus, with thousands of officers drafted into a special task force to carry out inspections.

Since then, ultra-Orthodox news sites and social media accounts have shared videos of law enforcement officers using what many see as disproportionate force against ultra-Orthodox Israelis for failing to comply with mask regulations.

“There is great anger over the arrogant enforcement that discriminates against the ultra-Orthodox,” said MK Michael Michaeli.

Chairman of the Education, Culture, and Sports Committee Yaakov Margi in the Knesset on February 24, 2016. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)

Ohana, the public security minister, who has previously said that he was aware of problems with enforcement and would take steps to fix them, told the MKs that he would “work to rectify this as soon as possible,” Deri’s office said in a statement.

UTJ’s statement said that Netanyahu condemned the violence and said that “police officers who acted illegally will be brought to account.”

On Friday, MK Yisrael Eichler of UTJ called on the two Haredi parties to temporarily leave the government to protest what he called selective targeting of religious neighborhoods for coronavirus lockdowns. His call came days after UTJ MK Moshe Gafni threatened to withdraw his party from the coalition if the government decided to close down yeshivas. Shortly after, the cabinet announced a new raft of restrictions on bars, synagogues, and other venues, which excluded yeshivas.

Speaking at Monday’s meeting, UTJ MK Uri Maklev said that while the ultra-Orthodox public has long stood by Netanyahu, it has a “long memory” and was now “waiting for your action and intervention, for deeds and not for speech,” Maariv reported.

Sam Sokol contributed to this report.

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