Haredim escalate riots over 'blood libel,' as police chief fumes that 'the Bible doesn't permit this'

Barkat press conference 248.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Barkat press conference 248.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Haredi protests on the streets of Jerusalem over the arrest of a pregnant woman suspected of abusing her three-year-old son escalated throughout Thursday, culminating in late-night riots in which hundreds clashed with police on Jerusalem's main north-south Road One. Dozens were arrested and seven policemen were injured - some of them with head wounds from rocks. Police used water cannons to disperse rioters who tried to block the road. The escalation saw several hundred haredim pelt police with stones at the end of a prayer vigil in Mea She'arim, police said. At the vigil, one of the rabbinical leaders of the radical anti-Zionist Toldot Aharon hassidic sect to which the mother belongs, Rabbi Yitzhak Kershenbaum, reportedly declared that his followers would "fight to the last drop of our blood" to secure the mother's release and clear her name of what the community has charged is a blood libel. Jerusalem's police chief Cmdr. Aharon Franco castigated the instigators of the protests, saying "I have not found a single place in the Bible where it is written that these actions are permissible." He also said officers have "concrete" evidence against the mother in the case. Franco wondered aloud why rabbinical and political leaders had not spoken out against the violence that has shaken Jerusalem for three successive days. "We are talking about a city which is the capital, and not enough has been done on the national level to ease tensions," he said. Earlier, thousands of haredim gathered at Kikar Shabbat in Mea She'arim. Some lit garbage bins on fire and threw rocks. Franco said there "has been a marked escalation" in the riots over the past day, with the level of violence rising, "both toward municipal workers and toward public infrastructure." "They've dismantled traffic lights, and without traffic lights deadly accidents could take place. They've disconnected systems in electricity poles and people could be electrocuted," he said. He noted that the haredi violence began last month with the opening of a parking lot near the Jaffa Gate on Saturdays, and then escalated this week with the arrest of the mother from the radical Toldot Aharon hasidic sect who is suspected of nearly starving her toddler to death. As attempts to broker an end to the violence continued late last night, police were bracing for renewed riots at the weekend over both the woman's arrest and the opening of the parking lot. "I have not heard any condemnation from rabbis or senior leaders to stop the riots," Franco said. "No moderate authority in the haredi community is getting up and speaking out against this phenomenon." Someone needed to "wake up" before people were seriously hurt, he said. The woman, who is five months pregnant, is suspected of severely abusing her child for two years, until he weighed only 7 kilograms. She is not cooperating with police investigators, and apparently suffers from Munchausen's syndrome by proxy, a psychiatric disorder wherein those affected abuse someone else, typically a child, to draw attention or sympathy to themselves. The boy was in and out of Jerusalem's Hadassah University Hospitals seven times over the last two years before staffers finally determined that the mother was abusing her child after surveillance cameras caught her disconnecting her son's feeding tubes. The extremist anti-Zionist Eda Haredit umbrella organization, which is championing the woman's innocence, alleged that the hospital had treated the child with chemotherapy for nearly a year after misdiagnosing him with cancer. Hadassah University Hospital spokeswoman Yael Bossem-Levy dismissed the allegations as outrageous and stressed the child did not have cancer. A small group of haredi men demonstrated Thursday afternoon near the hospital, police said. The chief police investigator in the child abuse case said the mother's associates were behaving like mafioso. "We are talking about actions that would not embarrass criminal organizations: threats against doctors and social workers, damage to property of welfare offices and rioting," Jerusalem police investigator Eli Cohen said at a briefing. Officers were concerned that the suspect might flee the country if released from detention, he said, adding that police would ask a Jerusalem court to extend the woman's custody at a hearing on Friday. Cohen said that security had been stepped up at the hospital where the three-year-old is being treated to ensure he is not abducted. The investigator noted that authorities had still been unable to question the woman's other children to determine if any of them suffered abuse, even though their father - who has proclaimed his wife's innocence - has agreed to that as a condition of his release from police questioning. The woman, who is exercising her right to remain silent, has refused to cooperate with police or undergo a psychiatric evaluation, officers said. In a sign of possible compromise, Franci said Thursday night that the refusal, through the woman's lawyer, to undergo such an examination was holding up her release from detention. The court was to decide Friday on a possible compromise agreement which would see the woman released on bail and undergo the psychiatric test. The Jerusalem Municipality said the rioters had caused more than NIS 550,000 in damage to city property, including vandalizing traffic lights and setting hundreds of neighborhood garbage bins on fire. Protesters threw stones at police and motorists, as well as at the Education Ministry building in Jerusalem on Thursday morning. Several dozen haredim were also forcibly prevented from converging on nearby Jaffa Road. The garbage-strewn streets of Mea She'arim reeked of smoke, fire and refuse in the summer heat. Meanwhile, Welfare and Social Services Minister of Isaac Herzog (Labor) lashed out at the "lies" being propagated on the haredi street by "publicists" and "uninvolved figures" as to the circumstances behind the mother's arrest. "We all understand that what happened here was that a child was saved from the brink of death," Herzog told Israel Radio. "It would be right for community leaders to ease the tensions and realize that in the end, they're hurting their sector," he added. The Jerusalem Municipality has temporarily suspended welfare services to haredi neighborhoods after its offices came under repeated attack. The rare move was to be lifted as soon as the violence ceased. The Association of Civil Rights in Israel on Thursday urged Mayor Nir Barkat to restore the services, calling the move collective punishment. The city said the offices would reopen as soon as workers were no longer facing "life-threatening" danger, and expressed regret over the inconvenience caused to residents not involved in the violence.