Politicians spar over restricting haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem

IDF screens 400 in ultra-Orthodox Beitar Illit * Rate of infection in Bnei Brak on the decline.

Ultra-Orthodox men wearing masks walk around the neighborhood of Mea Shearim, Jerusalem, April 12, 2020  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
Ultra-Orthodox men wearing masks walk around the neighborhood of Mea Shearim, Jerusalem, April 12, 2020
Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion called the government’s decision to turn several of the city’s haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighborhoods into restricted zones “political.”
“The decision to restrict neighborhoods was political,” the mayor tweeted, hours after the restrictions rolled out at noon on Sunday. He said he was moving up to 150 infected people to “coronavirus hotels,” of which he was an advocate.
Earlier in the day, Interior Minister Arye Deri told the press that he had asked Lion to “sit down and take a professional look through all the data and determine whether there are any ultra-Orthodox areas that were unjustly identified as restricted zones or secular areas that were unjustly not identified,” and to consider redrawing the boundaries. However, Lion said “there is no intention of making changes.”
Overnight, a special ministerial committee on the coronavirus approved placing four areas of Jerusalem under partial lockdown through Wednesday. The people in these restricted areas cannot leave unless they are going to work, getting essential medical treatment, attending the funeral of a nuclear family member or transferring their children to an ex-spouse. In addition, they can attend legal proceedings or access other essential services with approval.
There are four districts specified by the committee, which include 17 communities, most of them haredi. Among the areas that will now be restricted are Har Nof, Ramot, Romema, Neveh Ya’acov, Mea She’arim and Geula.
The move came after days of deliberation and protest against such a decision by Lion and haredi leaders, and at the urging of some members of the Health Ministry and Jerusalem’s liberal-leaning Hitorerut movement.
UTJ MK Moshe Gafni called the move "uncanny" and said it was "on the verge of a scandal."
"The public's trust is paramount in this fight, and this trust is unfortunately eroded every day," the haredi lawmaker said.
Health Minister Ya’acov Litzman, head of UTJ, also pushed back. He called for establishing new criteria for evaluating which cities, regions and neighborhoods should be restricted that are not based on sector.
Litzman made the recommendation at a follow-up meeting of the ministerial committee on Sunday.
The criteria he recommended are places that have 50 or more coronavirus cases, a higher percentage per 100,000 people than the national average and that the number of cases has been rising over the last three days.
At the same time, Hitorerut cheered the decision, though it said these restricted zones might be too little, too late.
"Unfortunately, we have already lost a week and a half in the fight against the coronavirus only because Moshe Lion is engaged in politics instead of public health," the Hitorerut Party said.
It further stated that the mayor's announcement was published in such a way that most residents who are asked to enter the isolation are not even aware of it.
"There is great uncertainty and confusion," it said.
The only other city that has been designated a restricted zone is haredi Bnei Brak, which has more coronavirus cases per capita than any other city in the country. However, the Health Ministry reported on Sunday that the percentage of patients in the city has started to decline.
Deri said he believes at least 50% of Bnei Brak can be released from restrictions “because there is a low percentage of morbidity.”
He noted that there “is a great deal of interest in getting coronavirus patients out of Bnei Brak” for the benefit of the patients and the other residents. “As patients are excluded, the number of sick people in Bnei Brak is declining and soon there will be no reason to impose restrictions on Bnei Brak. Bnei Brak can be opened.”
While Jerusalem has the most coronavirus cases, it has five times as many people as Bnei Brak.
Troops from the Etzion Brigade along with Magen David Adom carried out 400 coronavirus tests in the haredi settlement of Beitar Illit on Sunday.
Though the update on the number of coronavirus tests published by the Health Ministry showed a decrease, Lt.-Col. Yakir Abergil, deputy commander of the brigade, told The Jerusalem Post that troops began testing community members with the national rescue service for the deadly virus and hopes to increase the number of tests as time goes on.
Beitar Illit, with a population of 59,240 has also been hit hard by the virus. According to the Health Ministry, there are currently 917 people infected there.
As part of the IDF's effort to curb the spread of the virus in the ultra-Orthodox sector, Maj.-Gen. (ret.) Yossi Bachar is overseeing operations in Beitar Illit.
According to Maj. Sultan Eyadat, an officer in the brigade's Reconnaissance Battalion, while residents usually ask troops to bring them specific food products or missing medicines, residents have also asked that food they prepared for family members also be delivered by troops.
“It’s really, really meaningful to be able to get to people and give them what they need – to bring what they need to their door,” Eyadat told the Post.
According to Eyadat, kids are excited to see the troops, and people on the street and neighbors clap and salute them when they deliver the food.
“The residents are really happy that we are coming to them and helping them," he said. "I will remember this mission my entire life.”