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Israel mulls imposing quarantine on haredi population centers defying lockdown

The government is considering placing the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak under quarantine, over its residents’ defying of the nationwide curfew orders and the fear that the coronavirus outbreak could spiral out of control in the densely populated locality, where the infection rate is higher than the national average.

Finance Ministry Director Shai Babad told the Knesset on Sunday that “we are having more than a few problems with ultra-Orthodox society in areas like Bnei Brak.”

Babad made the comment hours after hundreds of residents gathered for the burial of Rabbi Tzvi Shenkar, with thousands reportedly attending a funeral procession just before. Videos show hundreds gathering in close proximity to one another, breaking social-distancing directives.

Several clashes between residents and police attempting to enforce the lockdown have taken place in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods in recent weeks.

The images sparked criticism of the police, who were accused of not enforcing the directives as vigorously as they do in secular cities.

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said he “would not stand for it,” and demanded the police exercise “determined and equal enforcement of Health Ministry orders throughout Israel, with no exceptions.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has instructed Interior Minister Aryeh Deri to devise a solution that would enable the ultra-Orthodox population, as well as the Arab sector, to observe Health Ministry directives while considering their specific needs.

Last week, Health Ministry data showed that 24% of infections have occurred in synagogues, with the next most common places of infection being hotels (15%), restaurants (12%), supermarkets (7%), yeshivahs (5%) and medical clinics (5%). Educational institutions, senior facilities, daycares, mikvahs, election ballot stations, shopping malls, event halls, and gyms all fell under 5%.

The data further showed that in Bnei Brak, cases of infection are increasing eightfold every three days, compared to the twofold national average. In Jerusalem, which also has a high ultra-Orthodox population, the cases are quadrupling in the same time period.

The Knesset discussion of a potential full lockdown, said Babad, is centered on “how we could put a closure in place and isolate those areas,” referring to the ultra-Orthodox areas with high infection rates and non-compliance with government orders intended to decrease the spread of the outbreak.

Israeli police have used a drone, helicopter and stun grenades in recent days to prevent people gathering in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem in defiance of Health Ministry measures aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

Israeli security forces arrest an Ultra Orthodox Jewish man as they close a synagogue in the Mea Shearim Ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood in Jerusalem (Photo: AFP)

On Monday, police, some in riot gear and surgical masks, encountered occasional resistance and verbal abuse while enforcing the measures in a part of the city whose residents have long chafed against the state.

“Nazis!” shouted a group of boys, as police pulled men off the narrow streets of Mea Shearim.

As well as broadcasting the message “Stay Home” from the helicopter and drone, police have issued offenders with fines.

Israeli officials describe the ultra-Orthodox as especially prone to contagion because their districts tend to be poor and congested, and in normal times they are accustomed to holding thrice-daily prayers with often large congregations.

Some of their rabbis have also cast doubt on the degree of coronavirus risk.
Many ultra-Orthodox reject the authority of the Israeli state, whose Jewish majority is mostly secular.

The Mea Shearim patrols represented an escalation in security enforcement.