Ultra-Orthodox Jewish Community Fights Police Over Israel’s Lockdowns

Ultra-Orthodox demonstrators clashed with police in two of Israel’s major cities. Enforcing coronavirus restrictions in these religious neighborhoods has brought great challenges for local authorities.

Most ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects have defied virus safety regulations throughout the pandemic by persisting to open schools, pray in the synagogues and hold large funerals and weddings within their communities.

Protesters opposed police efforts to enforce coronavirus lockdown restrictions. They reportedly used flaming garbage dumpsters to block roads, threw rocks at moving vehicles, and damaged a bus. 

Blatant disregard for safety measures contributed to a disproportionate infection rate within the ultra-Orthodox community. Members of the religious sect account for more than 33% of all Israel’s coronavirus cases, in spite of making up only ten percent of the population. 

In Jerusalem, police found it necessary to fire tear gas. A water cannon was reportedly deployed to the scene by police as a means of dispersal.  They sprayed foul-smelling water to disperse hundreds of ultra-Orthodox protesters outside of a school. Authorities arrested eight individuals from that incident.

In the southern coastal city of Ashdod, ultra-Orthodox Jews re-opened their seminary in defiance of the COVID-19 restrictions.  They clashed with police who were trying to shut it down again.  Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox students attempted to force their way into the seminary by pushing, shoving, and damaging a fence enclosing it, a police statement said.

Police dragged away ultra-Orthodox protesters who blocked roads. Officers detained fifteen suspects, and 13 police officers were injured in the clash, the statement said. Some protesters were caught on film as they deliberately coughed in the officers' direction.

Reporting for Al Jazeera, Harry Fawcett said anger was growing among many Israelis at the ultra-Orthodox who flout COVID regulations, “given the kind of impact that the rapid spread of the virus inside these communities has had on the national health system and on the national economy.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Cabinet voted on Sunday. They almost completely shut down the country's only international airport in a bid to prevent the arrival of new coronavirus variants. "We are doing this. We are hermetically closing the skies, with the exception of highly exceptional cases, to prevent the entry of mutations of the virus, and also to ensure that we will move forward as fast as possible with our vaccination campaign," he said.

According to a statement from Netanyahu's office, the ban will come into force from Monday at midnight until the end of January.

Israel’s Health Ministry has recorded more than 595,000 cases of the virus since the pandemic and 4,361 deaths. Meanwhile, Israel has become one of the world's first countries to begin vaccinating teens against Covid-19. Israel is recognized as the world leader when it comes to how fast its citizens are vaccinated.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein told the BBC that Israel, which has confirmed 4,361 deaths related to Covid-19, was "collecting every piece of information" to determine the effectiveness of the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

More than 2.5 million Israelis — more than 25 percent of the country's population of 9.3 million — have received the first shot since the beginning of vaccinations on December 19. One million of them have already received the required second dose three weeks later, Edelstein tweeted on Sunday.

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