Ultra-Orthodox rioters, police clash over COVID-19 enforcement operations

Streets in Kiryat Belz, Mea She'arim quiet, Satmar hassidic center packed with men without masks, some prayer services outdoors.

Belz Great Synagogue (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Belz Great Synagogue
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Severe civil unrest in ultra-Orthodox communities broke out on Sunday as police sought to enforce the national coronavirus lockdown in several cities, resulting in violent resistance and, in some instances, what appeared to be excessive police force.
Violent confrontations broke out between police and haredi (ultra-Orthodox) radicals in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak and Betar Illit, and more than 20 rioters were arrested.
With another six days left of the Sukkot and Simhat Torah holidays, typically a very sociable and convivial time of year, and with the police set to continue its enforcement activities, further violent disturbances are likely.
Overnight, police forces entered the neighborhood of Mea She’arim in Jerusalem, where health regulations are routinely broken, and encountered severe opposition to their enforcement efforts.
Police arrested four people who broke regulations and then scuffled with officers on Shivtei Yisrael Street when they attempted to stop the violation.
At Kikar Shabbat intersection, riots broke out outside the Poalei Agudath Israel synagogue, and residents set trash cans alight as the police arrested another five rioters.
In one incident in Jerusalem captured on video by an ultra-Orthodox freelance photographer, a riot policeman was seen violently shoving a young boy to the ground after he seemingly interfered with traffic.
Clashes and arrests in Jerusalem continued into the night.
In Bnei Brak, severe resistance was also put up by hundreds of haredi worshipers who refused to leave their synagogue in defiance of the lockdown, with fierce fights breaking out between the two sides.
The police arrested 13 rioters during the confrontation.
Earlier in the day, police closed down 11 synagogues in Bnei Brak that were operating against regulations. Forty-eight tickets were handed out for forbidden gatherings, not wearing masks and other offenses.
One NIS 5,000 ticket was issued to a synagogue administrator, while overnight, the police closed down two yeshivas, including the flagship Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, when students were found to have contravened government regulations.
Enforcement efforts in the haredi settlement of Betar Illit resulted in further confrontations, and there were disturbing pictures of police grappling with a father and child, and one policeman hurled a bin at a protester.
The police found dozens of worshipers praying in several synagogues and sought to disperse them, while also issuing fines for failing to wear masks and to observe social distancing.
When they refused to disperse, the police used greater force to remove them from the various prayer sites, resulting in violent confrontations with the worshipers.
Stones were thrown at officers and two were arrested on suspicion of such activity, police said.
A police spokesman said the force regards with “extreme severity” the actions of the policeman who threw the trash can at a protester and that an internal investigation had been opened.
On Sunday, the police said they handed out 9,653 tickets for various violations of Health Ministry directives between October 2-3, most of them for leaving one’s home for a forbidden purpose (7,113). Another 1,865 were handed out to people who were not wearing masks. The rest were for people violating isolation, opening businesses against directives or gathering.
Despite these enforcement efforts, hundreds of Belz Hassidim were witnessed Sunday streaming into the Belz Great Synagogue complex in northern Jerusalem for the morning prayer services that take place during the intermediary days of Sukkot.
Over the course of 30 minutes, at least a dozen hassidim every minute were seen walking into a side door of the massive complex, complete with prayer shawls and the four species.
Barely any of them were wearing masks.
Efforts to enter the site and witness where the services were actually being held were physically and violently blocked by some of the hassidim entering the building.
The presence of such large numbers of men, apparently praying indoors, would appear to be a mass violation of the current lockdown.
Belzer Rebbe Yissachar Dov Rokeach has largely ignored government regulations from the outset of the pandemic, and held prayer services as normal over Passover, and in the months since.
Infamously, the wedding of his grandson in August was attended by thousands in the courtyard of the synagogue, although that courtyard was empty Sunday morning.
Despite the mass gathering at the Belz headquarters, the streets of the Kiryat Belz neighborhood where it is located were quiet and largely empty.
In nearby Mea She’arim, the streets during the course of the early morning were extremely quiet, with some prayer services taking place outdoors.
The headquarters of the Satmar Hassidic community in the neighborhood was, however, packed with people praying in large numbers and close quarters in the various prayer halls in the building, as well as in the sukkah.
The police declined to respond directly to the incidents at the Belz and Satmar synagogues.
“Police activities took place in and around the ultra-religious neighborhoods in order to prevent illegal gatherings,” said police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld. “Police officers are also explaining to the leaders of the communities the importance of keeping social distancing and wearing masks at all times, fines were given out this morning to people in the streets who did not keep to the rules and regulations of the Health Ministry and police.”
Maayan Hoffman contributed to this report.