Fearing 'Selective Enforcement,' Israel Just Doesn't Prosecute COVID Gatherings

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A mass gathering at a funeral in Jerusalem.
A mass gathering at a funeral in Jerusalem, Dec. 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Not a single indictment has been filed by the police or the State Prosecutor’s Office against organizers of large gatherings in violation of coronavirus health regulations since the onset of the pandemic.

Two months ago, the State Prosecutor’s Office also instructed the police not to file indictments of its own over mass gatherings. The step was taken over concern that the charges would be challenged as selective enforcement, due to the lack of uniformity in the handling of such gatherings, a document obtained by Haaretz showed. The State Prosecutor’s Office has not yet resolved the legal issue but said the incidents continue to be investigated and will be dealt with once the policy is finalized.

In March and April, immediately following the outbreak of the pandemic, the deputy state prosecutor for criminal affairs, Shlomo Lemberger, issued instructions to the police and prosecutors directing them to enforce violations of “an act liable to spread disease.” One example that he cited at the time was large gatherings, over which he said criminal investigations and indictments should be filed rather than simply resorting to administrative fines. But not a single indictment has been filed since over an illegal gathering, and only a handful of indictments have been filed for violating of any kind of the COVID-19 regulations.

In October, Haaretz reported that the police had reached secret agreements with some Hasidic ultra-Orthodox communities to allow the holding of illegal mass events – on the condition that film footage of the gatherings not be made public. A short time later, senior prosecutors reprimanded the police officers involved and said that unequal enforcement of the law would permit others to claim selective enforcement and make it difficult to enforce the coronavirus regulations.

Lemberger issued new instructions in October directing that criminal charges not be filed over mass gatherings “at least for now.” But he instructed the police to continue investigating the cases, on the grounds that “the basis for the crime exists.” Once an investigation is completed, decisions regarding the filing of criminal charges or imposing fines are to be suspended until a final policy decision is made, Lemberger wrote.

In a response for this article, the State Prosecutor’s Office said the police continue to investigate cases in which large numbers of people assemble and fines are being issued when the law permits. In October, a directive was issued not to file indictments over such gatherings at this stage “due to the need to develop a uniform and equal enforcement policy on the matter in cases that could also be enforced through administrative means,” the statement said.

The policy on the matter will be finalized shortly and will also apply to cases that have already been investigated, the statement added.

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