Soldiers patrolling through the streets of Mea She'arim during Passover week found themselves in a situation they generally encounter only on the Palestinian side of the border. Local residents, the hard core of Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox community, began hurling stones at them. The soldiers were at a loss. The police were called in and were greeted by similar violence. The assailants explained to the ultra-Orthodox media that the army was using the neighborhood to simulate operations in an inner-city environment, and the Haredim didn't want to let the authorities ruin the holiday atmosphere.
Hardly a week goes by in Mea She'arim without a stone-throwing incident, the torching of garbage containers or the blocking of streets. The public has gotten so used to the violence there that it's hard to notice that a new phenomenon has sprung up. In the past, the violence took place in the neighborhood mainly because of religious struggles. Now the very entrance of a government agency or service provider is a pretext for protest. Mea She'arim has become a dangerous place to visit.
In March, for example, police officers were attacked when they answered a call to break up a fight between a landlord and his tenants. In December, someone there painted "An end to filthy pictures" on the motorbike of a cable-company technician. Attacks on buses, window smashing and tire puncturing have become routine in Mea She'arim. On April 1, the ultra-Orthodox Web site Kikar Hashabbat reported: "Passersby tell us that dozens of yeshiva students threw stones at a bus while some of their friends tried to block it with garbage cans. The rioters were trying to get on the bus to separate the male and female passengers."
The neighborhood has become a lawless no-man's-land. It's part of the ultra-Orthodox community's process of radicalization. But there's no reason for radicalization to lead to unrestrained violence. These are not isolated excesses - large crowds take part in the incidents. Mea She'arim is ruled by the rabbinical court of the Eda Haredit, the extreme ultra-Orthodox group that could stop the riotous behavior if it wanted to. But it doesn't want to.
The violence is encouraged by the police's kid-glove policy and fear of a full-scale confrontation with the ultra-Orthodox. Quite often, instead of facing off with the rioters, the police simply close off the neighborhood. There are daily attacks on soldiers, police, technicians and bus passengers without a clear response. The locals realize that Israeli law does not apply to them. They are immune to punishment.
It's not hard to understand the police. They know that arresting ultra-Orthodox offenders and using reasonable force in Mea She'arim will generate heavy political pressure and draw sharp criticism from the United Torah Judaism party. Still, they must go back to enforcing the law of the land in the neighborhood. To do so, they must act firmly against rioters, use riot-dispersal measures and make arrests that lead to prosecutions. The internal security minister must give the police whatever backing is necessary.
Similarly, the authorities and service providers should function in Mea She'arim as they do in all other dangerous environments and cease operating until security is restored. This would not be collective punishment, but self-preservation. The same applies to the Egged bus company, which repeatedly endangers its passengers by entering Mea She'arim. It should stop doing so until the mob attacks on buses cease.
The writer is deputy director for research and public relations at Hiddush, a group that promotes religious freedom and equality.
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