Against the background of police enforcement of COVID-19 regulations in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, severe riots continued late into Sunday night, fueled by intense opposition by radical elements in the community, to Health Ministry closure orders.
The riots followed a day of violent protests in the city led by youths from the extremist Jerusalem Faction. There was violent resistance to enforcement regulations also in Ashdod, Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh.
Further violent resistance erupted in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea Shearim and its environs during the course of Monday.
During the riots in Bnei Brak, a bus driver was assaulted and chased off his bus, and the bus itself was set on fire in the middle of the city, with flames from the conflagration causing damage to adjacent apartment buildings.
Electricity cables caught fire as a result of the arson in the town, resulting in dozens and maybe hundreds of homes losing their power supply.
Rioters also toppled a traffic light and burned rubbish bins, among other acts of arson, and blocked roads in the city until after 1:30a.m. Riot police, called into the city to quell the unrest, deployed stun grenades to disperse the rioters.
Despite the severe unrest, the two ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset, United Torah Judaism and Shas, opposed legislation to increase fines against violations of Health Ministry regulations.
In a vitriolic speech in the Knesset plenum, Senior United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni alleged that there was a “campaign of delegitimization against the ultra-Orthodox community,” and asserted that “drop-outs” from the fringes of the ultra-Orthodox community were responsible for burning the bus in Bnei Brak.
Images from Bnei Brak showed that three youths in hoodies were involved in one of the arson incidents, although hundreds of bona fide ultra-Orthodox youths were involved in violent protests in the city throughout Sunday.
Gafni said the law to increase fines was “illegitimate to its foundations,” and said that Israeli society was “guilty” for the high coronavirus infection rate amongst the ultra-Orthodox population.
“We aren’t guilty, you who made us live in such crowded conditions are guilty, and then you dare to attack us over false allegations,” he stormed.
Shas Chairman and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri said he opposed increasing fines so that businesses such as events halls would not face further financial damage.
The legislation would raise fines against businesses, educational institutions, mass celebrations and other violations from NIS 5,000 to NIS 10,000, passed in a first reading but UTJ and Shas have demanded it be moderated.
According to Channel 12 News, the two ultra-Orthodox parties made political threats to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, warning that if the original legislation gets final approval there would be “broad consequences.”
A compromise is now reportedly being worked out between the Likud and the ultra-Orthodox parties whereby the fines will be raised gradually.Blue and White leader Benny Gantz threatened that if the legislation was not passed by Tuesday night his party would oppose a further extension to the current lockdown, averring that “If Bnei Brak and Beitar Illit are not closed Herzliya and Rishon L’Tzion will also not be closed.
On Monday afternoon, Bnei Brak Mayor Avraham Rubinstein and Police Vice-Commissioner David Bitan announced a joint plan to restore peace to the city after Sunday’s riots.
The meeting between the mayor and high-ranking police officers led to an agreement that anarchy must be prevented while moderate, and not extreme, police action taken.
Efforts are also underway to have the senior rabbinic leadership of the Ashkenazi, non-hassidic ultra-Orthodox community issue a letter condemning violence.
Two of the most senior Sephardi ultra-Orthodox rabbinic leaders did however speak out strongly against the riots during the course of Monday.
Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef described the rioters as “marginal youth” who welfare services should deal with and to whom educators should teach civil behavior. He said there was “no justification whatsoever for violence and it should be stopped immediately.” He described the riots in Bnei Brak and other locales as a desecration of God’s name.
“These law breakers must be condemned and we must distance ourselves from them. Our path is the path of Torah and civil behavior precedes the Torah.”
Rabbi Shalom Cohen, head of the Shas Council of Torah Sages, said that being present during riots which “contravene the path of the Torah” was “severely prohibited [by Jewish law].” Anyone who participates in them “is a partner to the desecration of God’s name.”
Jerusalem Post Staff contributed to this report