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As violence deepens in lockdown-defying ultra-Orthodox areas

Ultra-Orthodox MKs said to warn Netanyahu against bill increasing lockdown fines

Haredi parties reportedly threaten ‘broad consequences’ if Knesset passes legislation doubling penalties for breaking closure orders

Ultra-Orthodox protesters demonstrate against a police enforcement of lockdown orders due to the coronavirus, in the city of Bnei Brak, January 24, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Ultra-Orthodox protesters demonstrate against a police enforcement of lockdown orders due to the coronavirus, in the city of Bnei Brak, January 24, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The Knesset on Monday held a plenum session for the first reading of a bill that would double the fines for violators of health rules, with ultra-Orthodox parties said to warn Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu against allowing the measure to pass into law.

Haredi members of the coalition government cautioned Netanyahu that if the bill passes the necessary three readings, there will be “broad consequences,” Channel 12 News reported.

The reading of the bill amid days of ongoing violence in ultra-Orthodox communities as residents pushed back against police enforcement of the lockdown.

There have been multiple reports of flagrant violations of the lockdown in Haredi communities, with schools in particular remaining open even though the lockdown orders included shuttering the entire education system with the exclusion of special education institutes. All nonessential businesses have also been closed.

The bill calls for the doubling of fines for businesses, education institutions and other venues that continue to operate against the law from NIS 5,000 ($1,530) to NIS 10,000 ($3,060).

Ahead of the reading, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, who leads the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, told a faction meeting that the party opposes the bill as it will “only deepen the serious economic crisis,” Kan News reported.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri in the Knesset building, on March 3, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The Blue and White party, which is backing the bill, said it will continue to push for the legislation to be passed, and repeated its previous accusations that Likud has been stalling on the bill in order to avoid upsetting the ultra-Orthodox parties — key allies for Netanyahu — as the country heads to elections in March.

“It is a law that saves lives, and any delay in the law is a political surrender which means complete abandonment of the struggle against coronavirus,” Blue and White said in a statement. “We will not lend a hand to the Likud manipulation that is trying to win Haredi voices at the cost of endangering lives.”

Despite the warning, Netanyahu’s Likud party still intends to back the bill, Channel 12 reported.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein of Likud told lawmakers in the plenum that he had wanted to make the fines even higher but that the Ministerial Committee for Legislation rejected the idea. He called for broad support of the bill.

“Raising the fines is intended to allow the fines to reflect the seriousness and danger of violating [the lockdown], and will be a deterrent to acts of violation,” Edelstein said.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein speaks during a press conference about the coronavirus, in Airport City on September 17, 2020. (Flash90)

The bill was expected to pass its first reading, even though members of the opposition Joint List party of predominantly Arab lawmakers was also expected to vote against it.

The ongoing lockdown was last week extended by 10 days until the end of the month, with Blue and White conditioning its support for the measure on increased enforcement of the lockdown and raising of fines. Blue and White has since accused Likud of delaying efforts to convene the Knesset in order to avoid raising the fines — due to political considerations.

Four people were arrested Sunday night in the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak during violent clashes with police that saw two buses attacked, one of which was torched. The Arab bus driver of the vehicle was lightly injured when the mob beat him.

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.

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

Whereas the rest of the country’s students have largely been able to continue their studies online during the lockdown, internet use in the Haredi community is publicly shunned and the option is not viable.

The unity government between Likud and Blue and White collapsed in December after it failed to pass a state budget, automatically dissolving parliament and prompting fresh elections, in what will be the fourth round of voting in two years.

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