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317 ultra-Orthodox men freed after breaking into holy site, defying virus rules

Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox men arrested Tuesday evening after breaking into a shuttered holy site at Mount Meron were released Wednesday morning to their homes.

Each of the 317 detainees received a fine for violating coronavirus regulations designed to prevent mass gatherings.

Three people were still in custody and are suspected of assaulting officers during clashes that broke out near the gravesite of second century sage Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai toward the end of the Lag B’Omer festival on Tuesday.

Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox worshipers had broken into the sacred compound in northern Israel, defying police orders limiting entry to the site due to coronavirus fears and prompting scuffles with security forces.

Footage published by Hebrew-language media showed many men breaking down the door on Tuesday afternoon and forcing their way into Bar Yochai’s gravesite, shortly after police took down many of their checkpoints as the holiday neared its end.

The footage included often violent clashes between the worshipers and police officers, some of whom had left the area and rushed back to the site. Several people suffered mild injuries, according to reports.

Police said over 300 people were arrested for assaulting officers, saying that those detained had “attacked officers, threw rocks toward them and forcibly resisted dispersing.”

Separately, and apparently without any police intervention, 2,000 people gathered in Jerusalem’s Mea Shearim neighborhood on Tuesday afternoon — the same site where hundreds of Haredi men were dispersed the night before for an illegal Lag B’Omer assembly.

Israel in recent weeks has begun to roll back restrictions on movement as infection rates have dropped to a few dozen new cases a day. But health officials told Hebrew media on Tuesday it could be forced to again introduce restrictions in virus hotspots as a result of the Lag B’Omer violations.

Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh and other cities and communities saw major outbreaks of the disease last month, much of it tied to the ultra-Orthodox community, which initially resisted social distancing measures and whose hardline members continue to flout the rules.

Lag B’Omer has become a key holiday in the Jewish mystical tradition, said to be the day of the death of Bar Yochai, and also marking the anniversary of when he first conveyed the text of the seminal Jewish mystical work, the Zohar. It also marks the end of a minor mourning period recognizing the deaths of thousands of students of Rabbi Akiva in a plague.

The decision to impose restrictions during Lag B’Omer came as containment measures introduced to stem the outbreak have successfully brought the number of daily cases down.

Lockdown measures were introduced over Passover, Memorial Day, and Independence Day to prevent the pathogen’s spread, and continue to be in effect in some areas for the month-long Ramadan Muslim holiday and fast.

In recent weeks, in the rest of the country, the government has rescinded many restrictions on movement and allowed most stores and businesses to reopen.

Original: TOI Staff and JTA contributed to this report.