Clashes broke out between police and rioters opposed to coronavirus lockdown restrictions in the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak overnight Thursday-Friday, after a mob in the city injured a police officer on patrol.
The demonstrations were condemned by leaders from across the political spectrum, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who vowed to act with a “heavy hand” against those who violated lockdown rules and assaulted police.
At least six people were arrested for disturbing public order. They were held for questioning and will have a hearing in Tel Aviv on Friday on extending their detention.
The skirmishes began Thursday night, continued into the predawn hours of Friday morning and took place in several parts of the city.
The clashes began when dozens of rioters attacked two police officers on patrol in a vehicle in the city, lightly injuring a female police officer. The mob smashed the car’s windows, slashed its tires, pelted it with stones and tried to open its doors. One of the attackers appeared to run off with a bag snatched from inside the vehicle.
The officers were traveling in an unmarked car and some reports identified them as detectives. It was not immediately clear if they were wearing police uniforms during the incident.
The crowd had gathered as part of a protest against the closure of a yeshiva, or religious school, in the city that had opened in violation of the lockdown restrictions.
Around an hour after the initial attack, a force from the Yasam special police unit raided a yeshiva in the city, apparently the same school involved in the earlier incident.
The entrance of the Yasam officers sparked widespread disturbances in the city, with some residents blocking roads and burning trash bins and tires. Some Bnei Brak residents called police officers “Nazis” and officers used riot dispersal methods including flash grenades.
The rioters belong to an “extremist” faction of the Vizhnitz Hasidic sect, according to Hebrew media reports.
The Ynet news sire reported that some religious leaders in the city claimed the initial attack on the officers happened because they were not wearing police uniforms and did not identify themselves.
They claimed that the detectives approached a yeshiva, alarming the people there and sparking a fight.
Some residents of Bnei Brak accused the police of using excessive force in the crackdown and accused officers of acting out of vengeance.
“If they wanted to arrest the rioters who attacked the car with the detectives that’s one thing, but the police came here for revenge,” one resident told Ynet.
“To indiscriminately throw [flash] grenades in the street, damaging peoples’ vehicles, waking up the whole city in the middle of the night… I lost all trust in the police.”
תמונת מצב לקראת השעה 3:00 סיימנו, כך נראה. כמה שעות לא פשוטות, עם שימוש בכוח רב. עדיין לא ברור מי מבין העצורים היה שותף בתקיפה מוקדם יותר הערב וגם לא ברור השימוש המופרז ברימוני ההלם. מקווה שמראות כמו בסרטון הזה לא יתחדשו בימים הקרובים. לילה טוב מבני ברק, זירת לחימה pic.twitter.com/bsCVB4itJL
— Bar Peleg (@bar_peleg) January 22, 2021
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said following the attack on the policewoman, “I strongly condemn the violence against the Israeli police operating in Bnei Brak and I am strengthening the hands of enforcement officials who are working to maintain Health Ministry regulations that save lives.
“We will act with a heavy hand against law-breakers, first and foremost against those who raised their hands against our policewomen and policemen,” Netanyahu said.
Critics have accused Netanyahu of avoiding cracking down on the Haredi public in order not to anger his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners.
The Israel Police said it “will not put up with blatant disturbances of public order, which pose a real risk to officers, and will work to bring the perpetrators to justice.”
The Bnei Brak municipality condemned the attack against the detectives, saying, “These acts are not the way of the city, do not reflect the will of the city’s rabbis and its hundreds of thousands of residents. This is a grave incident by a group of youths who must be prosecuted for it.”
Public Security Minister Amir Ohana called the incident a “savage and heinous crime” and that he said he would not allow it to go unpunished.
“The response will come, and fast,” Ohana said in a tweet.
Several prominent Haredi lawmakers condemned the violence, including Shas party leader Aryeh Deri, who described the attack as “outrageous,” saying, “We must stop the rioters and act against them in all seriousness. We must keep the guidelines and save lives.”
MK Yaakov Asher condemned the rioters, but also said, “At the same time, there is no getting away from the sense the police are acting under pressure from the media.”
There has been near-daily violent pushback against enforcement of the national lockdown aimed at curbing the pandemic in some parts of the ultra-Orthodox community. Other groups in the Haredi community abide by the restrictions.
The government official in charge of the virus response in the ultra-Orthodox community, Roni Numa, estimated this week that 15% of Haredi schools remained open during the current lockdown and said that some 12,000 ultra-Orthodox students had contracted the coronavirus in the last month.
Earlier Thursday, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein called for jailing those who broke lockdown rules.
“In the Haredi world there is too much violation, but the mood has changed a bit,” Edelstein said in an interview with the Srugim website, which caters to the national Orthodox community.
Asked if he supports prison sentences for violators he responded, “Certainly.”
Netanyahu and Edelstein have made appeals in recent days to Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, a leading ultra-Orthodox rabbi, asking that he influence the community to obey the lockdown.
Police upped their crackdown on the community following media reports of previous lax enforcement, with figures showing that rates of handing out fines in Haredi neighborhoods are significantly lower than for the general population.
The lockdown, in its third week and extended to end on January 31, has shuttered all nonessential businesses and also closed down the entire education system, excluding special education.
However, media reports have shown that many in the ultra-Orthodox community are flouting the orders, keeping open Talmud Torah schools, which roughly cover grades 1-8, and Talmudic yeshivas.
In addition, there have been incidences of weddings with hundreds of guests and prayer services attended by dozens despite the lockdown limiting indoor gatherings to just five people and outdoor gatherings to ten.
Channel 12 on Thursday alerted police to mass violations of virus restrictions in Haredi areas to test how long it would take for officers to respond.
In Beit Shemesh, Channel 12 reporters spotted eight buses full of children arriving at a school at 1 p.m. Reporters in a nearby parking lot called police three times to alert them of the infraction, but after waiting two hours, no officers arrived at the school.
In Ashdod, its reporters alerted police to hundreds of students leaving a school in the afternoon. Police insisted, incorrectly, that the school was a special education institution and allowed to be open, the report said.
Responders in Jerusalem also claimed, falsely, that a school operating in violation of lockdown rules was a special education institution, the report said.
In Elad, police responded to the call in about 15 minutes, and dozens of students were seen leaving the school shortly after via a side gate.