Police came under fire after a video emerged Monday showing cops in Jerusalem stopping a young ultra-Orthodox girl for failing to wear a face mask properly, as required under government orders aimed at curbing the spread of the coronavirus.
The footage prompted complaints from ultra-Orthodox cabinet members who said that police are harassing their community with strict enforcement of virus guidelines in public spaces.
The incident was the latest in a series of headline-making cases where police have been castigated for heavy-handed enforcement of the requirement to wear masks in public.
Secular Public Security Minister Amir Ohana, who is in charge of police, later published an open letter calling on officers to show discretion and urging the public to understand that officers are just doing a duty that was thrust upon them.
In the video, the girl, aged 13 according to reports, begins to cry as police question her. One of the two officers involved is seen without his identity badge on his chest, which eyewitnesses claim he took off and put in his squad car shortly after the incident began.
1. הבטיחו לשוטרים חופשה באשקלונה למי שמביא הכי הרבה דוחות?
ניידת עוצרת באמצע הכביש, השוטרים ניגשים אל ילדה בת 10 שהלכה לבדה ברחוב ומכניסים אותה ללחץ (לטענתה הורידה את המסכה לשניה כדי לשתות ברד, אבל זה כלל לא משנה) ולא הולכים משם לפני שרושמים לה דוח.
גם הבכי שלה לא שכנע אותם >>> pic.twitter.com/HpeAnRzrAa
— יבגני זרובינסקי (@ivgiz) July 6, 2020
According to witnesses and the girl’s mother, she had been wearing a mask, but moved it off of her face to drink a slushy. In the video, she is not wearing a mask, but a man walks up and appears to hand one to her.
A crowd can be seen forming around the girl and the police in the capital’s ultra-Orthodox Romema neighborhood, and the cops eventually leave without giving her a citation.
The girl’s mother complained to Channel 12 news that the police immediately told the girl that they were giving her a fine, instead of simply instructing her to put her mask on properly.
“She is a mature girl who cried all the way home and we still haven’t managed to calm her down,” the mother said.
“The girl said she was drinking while on her way and between sips a cop came and claimed she didn’t have a mask. He started to write her a ticket, she gave him her parents’ phone number and burst out crying,” a passerby, who offered to pay the NIS 500 ($144) fine himself, told Walla news.
The video sparked an outcry among ultra-Orthodox politicians, including Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush, who claimed the ultra-Orthodox community is being singled out by police.
However, police said in a statement that the claims made around the video are false and that the cops had simply told the girl to fix her mask and sent her on her way.
“This is another completely false and distorted publication within the framework of a trendy campaign these days against police and the officers working on behalf of public health,” the statement said.
In a letter published on his Facebook page, Ohana noted that the task of enforcing health regulations was given to police by the government and the Knesset.
Beginning with an address to police Ohana wrote, “There is no choice but to enforce the instructions,” referring to orders to wear masks and other virus-related rules applied by the government.
“My expectation from you is to do your work faithfully with determination where necessary, but also to use common sense and to act with sensitivity where needed,” he wrote.
Police behavior, Ohana continued, “has enormous influence on the way the public heeds the instructions and so on, our success as a country and a society to deal with the virus outbreak, and the image of the entire organization.”
Ohana then directed his remarks to the public.
“I see the videos. I see and it hurts,” he wrote. “They are not easy. Believe me — they aren’t easy for police either.”
“In the incidents where there was poor behavior the matter will be thoroughly clarified, procedures will be made clear, and where necessary lessons will be learned,” Ohana added.
“Police officers are not the enemy,” he said. “They are fulfilling their sacred duty in a national effort.”
Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman said Ohana had agreed to summon the head of police in Jerusalem for clarifications about the incident.
Litzman, who leads the ultra-Orthodox UTJ party, claimed in a statement that members of the ultra-Orthodox community are being targeted, and that the public is justified in being angry, describing the behavior of the police as “harassment.”
“You need to bring the police to account and to promise that we won’t experience behavior like this again in our neighborhoods,” Litzman said he told Ohana.
Diaspora Minister Omer Yankelevitch wrote on Twitter that police needed to be more sensitive toward young children.
MK Ahmad Tibi [Joint List] joined those accusing the police of giving out more fines to minority populations. “Would they do this with a girl from north Tel Aviv? The same age — would the cops do this? No,” he said.
The Jerusalem incident came days after police in the central city of Holon were filmed beating and tasering a man whom they claimed was caught not wearing a mask, then refused to identify himself, and resisted arrest.
זה לא יכול להיות יום ללא אלימות משטרתית.
תיעוד מג'סי כהן, חולון. pic.twitter.com/14HTF4ihvd
— Aviv Yashar (@aviv_yashar) July 5, 2020
In that video, filmed by the man’s friend, he is seen trying to pull his identification card from his pocket as police first try to restrain him and then wrestle him to the ground. As the man is heard crying out in pain, two police officers continue to pummel him.
The man, who required hospital treatment for cuts and bruises, was held under arrest although he was released following a remand hearing on Monday.
Another recent video showed a man on a train getting into a shouting match with police when they tried to fine him for not covering his nose with a mask. He told Channel 12 that because of health issues, he cannot constrict the airflow to his nose with a mask.
On Saturday, ultra-Orthodox residents of the capital’s Mea Shearim neighborhood rioted and attacked police who asked a woman without a mask to produce identification.
During a first wave of the coronavirus outbreak earlier this year, some ultra-Orthodox communities suffered higher infection rates, which were seen as the result of a lax attitude to government restrictions and then later a lockdown to stop the virus spread.
Since the government lifted most lockdown measures in recent weeks there has been a surge of infections, with more active cases than during the first wave. Again, some ultra-Orthodox communities have shown a higher infection rate than the national average, although Ohana, in his open letter, wrote that this time around the ultra-Orthodox community as a whole has better internalized the need to adhere to health precautions than the rest of the population.
The Health Ministry said Monday evening that 962 people had been diagnosed in the previous 24 hours, making a total of 30,749 cases. There were 12,359 active cases. So far 18,056 have recovered and 334 have died.