Violent demonstrations across Israel by ultra-Orthodox followers of Rabbi Shmuel Auerbah over the arrest of an army deserter continued into their third day on Thursday.
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Two dozen members of the extremist Haredi group were reportedly arrested for distrubting the peace on Thursday, bringing the total number of arrests to over 70 in 48 hours and around 140 since Tuesday. 18 were arrested at Jerusalem's Bar-Ilan junction, which has since been reopened for traffic, and another six in Beit Shemesh.
Escalation during the demonstrations seems to be mutual. Protesters look more deteremined to block traffic and to confront police officers, while the police have been wielding a relatively heavier hand the past few days than when dealing with previous such demonstrations.
Meanwhile, Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman has threatened to reexamine the draft deferment arrangements, and that he would cancel the arrangments for yeshivas identified with Auerbach and would support MK Oded Forer's bill to cut state funding to these yeshivas.
The deserter, who had been arrested by the Military Police, had followed Rabbi Auerbach’s instructions to refuse to report to the army induction center in order to arrange a deferment.
Demonstrators on Thursday blocked major arteries in Bnei Brak, Jerusalem, Ashdod, Elad and Beit Shemesh, during which at least five people were arrested.
On Wednesday, hundreds of protesters demonstrated in Bnei Brak, with one street completely blocked. One policeman was treated at Sheba Medical Center, Tel Hashomer, for minor injuries he sustained when demonstrators threw rocks and other objects at officers.Demonstrations also took place at a number of locations in and around Jerusalem. Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox men obstructed traffic at a junction in the north of the city, while a number of demonstrators tried to block Route 38. Protesters were also arrested in Beit Shemesh and at the Nitzan intersection on Route 4 (the Geha Road) in central Israel.
In a statement, the Israel Police said they would take firm action in any instance of public disturbance and in the event of a danger to motorists. “Protest is a democratic right and the Israel Police will allow it to take place. But disturbing the peace and injuring public welfare is a criminal offense,” the statement added.
The front page of Wednesday’s Hapeles, the official newspaper of Auerbach’s sect, announced the protests against the deserter’s arrest.
The deserter was arrested by chance, while taking part in a Jerusalem demonstration against the desecration of the Sabbath. Recorded messages announcing the demonstrations had been broadcast in the streets of Jerusalem earlier Wednesday.
Yaniv Kubovich, Nir Hasson and Almog Ben Zikri contributed to this report.