UTJ MK: Torah study 'will stop the pandemic, save the world'

Under Haredi pressure, PM said to agree to soften bill hiking lockdown fines

Netanyahu condemns violent riots, but moves to appease ultra-Orthodox allies; Gantz threatens to lift lockdown by Knesset vote if premier goes ahead with deal

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) in the Knesset on November 24, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)
United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni speaks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) in the Knesset on November 24, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90/File)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday condemned violent pushback in the ultra-Orthodox community against the lockdown rules, while quietly moving to soften a bill that would have doubled fines against violators to appease his Haredi political allies.

The emerging political compromise on the financial penalties was met with an ultimatum by Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who warned he would prevent the government’s lockdown rules from being brought to a Knesset vote unless the fines were doubled.

Channel 12 reported that under a compromise being drafted, fines would be raised, but not doubled, and lower-ranking cops would not be able to issue some of the fines.

According to reports, Netanyahu has agreed with the Haredi parties that the bill to double fines against lockdown violators will now go to the Knesset’s Constitution Law and Justice Committee, headed by United Torah Judaism MK Yaakov Asher, who will be able to hold it up.

The Walla news site said the Joint List was also in favor of the agreement.

Police clash with ultra-Orthodox Jews during a protest against the police enforcement of a lockdown orders due to the coronavirus, in the city of Bnei Brak, January 24, 2021 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The bill to double the penalties passed its first reading earlier on Monday, angering the ultra-Orthodox.

But the subsequent proposal to soften the bill drew fury from Gantz, who warned that he could prevent the Knesset from approving the extension of the nationwide lockdown in parliament.

“If there is no equal enforcement, there will be no lockdown. If Bnei Brak and Beitar Illit aren’t closed, then Rishon Lezion and Herzliya won’t close down,” said Gantz, giving Netanyahu until Tuesday night to pass the fines hike or see the nationwide closure aimed at curbing virus rates lifted before its Sunday expiration date.

Alternate Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Benny Gantz visits at the Jerusalem Municipality on November 10, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu on Monday defended the police and condemned riots in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak a day earlier, which saw a mob torch a bus.

“The police are acting properly,” said Netanyahu. “The citizens must cooperate. There is an extremist fringe group, there are people there who are trying to create provocations.”

The prime minister said that “everyone who rioted yesterday has been arrested,” though only 13 have been detained, and footage from the scene showed hundreds participating. “Police dealt with violators of health rules with a heavy hand, as they should, and we will continue to do so,” the premier said.

The ultra-Orthodox news website Behadrei Haredim earlier Monday published the content of an angry exchange between Netanyahu and United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni, who said: “What would you do without the ultra-Orthodox? Are we your slaves? We have much to think about regarding this alliance.”

United Torah Judaism MK Yitzhak Pindrus (Yehuda Haim/Flash90)

Meanwhile, United Torah Judaism MK Yitzhak Pindrus told the Knesset that continued Torah study among young children, “will stop the pandemic… that’s what can save the entire world.”

Violence in ultra-Orthodox communities continued Monday. Rioters in Beit Shemesh clashed with police, with hundreds throwing rocks at officers, according to the force. Police said three officers were injured and additional forces were called in to deal with the disturbance.

Meanwhile, members of extremist Haredi factions were blocking roads in Jerusalem in protest of works on the light rail, which is set to pass through their neighborhood despite their objections.

A mob shattered bus windshields, shouting: “You wanted a train to pass here — now no public transportation will pass at all.”

Earlier Monday, police officers who were called to Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood, apparently to deal with a domestic violence case, were ambushed by dozens of rioters who greeted them with a shower of rocks and other objects, the Israel Police said.

One officer was injured in his hand and damage was caused to the police vehicle. The Kan public broadcaster reported that Border Police officers were called in to rescue the cops.

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

Top ultra-Orthodox officials on Sunday blamed police for the tensions.

On Sunday night, four people were arrested in Bnei Brak during violent clashes with police that saw two buses attacked and one of them torched. The bus driver, Eyal Tzipori, was lightly injured when the mob beat him.

The driver, 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.

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.

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