A violent battle has been raging in Jerusalem for many weeks now. Thousands of Haredim (ultra-Orthodox) take to the streets every Shabbat to protest the opening of parking garages that will serve visitors to the city; during the rest of the week, they conduct battles in the streets of two Haredi neighborhoods, Geula and Mea Shearim. This week, these neighborhood thugs attacked and beat an Arab cab driver who was driving in Shabbat Square, then pelted police with stones when they came to remove the corpse of a man who was murdered at a hostel in Geula.
According to police commanders, the Haredi neighborhoods have become a no-man's land where the law and its agents are not allowed to operate. Current police procedure calls for pulling all policemen out of these neighborhoods when disturbances occur there and instead sealing them off from outside, thus transforming them into extraterritorial zones of religion and violence.
But it is not only to ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods that the police dare not send its forces: It has also proved unable to disperse the riotous demonstrations at the parking garages, which are outside these neighborhoods.
Jerusalem is a city of neighborhoods and a city of "understandings," and there is no reason to grumble at the demand that each neighborhood be allowed to preserve its character, and its residents to preserve their lifestyles. Similar accords have been adopted in most Israeli cities in which different cultural zones have clearly demarcated borders.
But what has happened in Jerusalem in recent weeks is far from coexistence by mutual consent. It is organized rioting that endangers lives, and whose purpose is to undermine the symbols of government and take over yet another chunk of secular residents' living space in the city. This is not a war over Shabbat, but against the state's monopoly on the rule of law. This was the case when the Haredim rioted over the arrest of a mother from the Hasidic Toldot Aharon sect, and it was the case when they attacked the policemen who came to investigate a murder in the neighborhood.
The Haredi neighborhoods, which in being closed to the law resemble violent quarters of other countries that the police dare not enter, set their agenda on the basis of internal codes dictated by the rabbis. They consider the law of the state a nuisance at best, or a legitimate target for assault at worst. The status quo that ostensibly exists between Israel's rule of law and the Haredi neighborhood thugs - and in this regard, no distinction should be made between the stone throwers and the rabbis who back them - always depends on the whim of one side: the ultra-Orthodox. When they wish, they will honor the "accords"; when they wish, they will violate them.
This Shabbat, as usual, a confrontation is expected between the Haredim and police. However, it is possible that it will be less violent. If so, it will not be due to law enforcement, but to an order issued by the community's rabbis that the thugs should not destroy property. Once more, the rabbis will determine the intensity of the flames.
The Israel Police, whose response to the rioters is being watched by the general public, must not back down before the lawbreakers. It has all the means and all the public support necessary to restore Jerusalem to its position as a city of binding understandings.
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