Hundreds Gather for Holiday Bonfires in Israel's Past Coronavirus Hot Spots, Defying Regulations

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A group of people around a bonfire, Mea Shearim, Jerusalem, May 10, 2020.
A group of people around a bonfire, Mea Shearim, Jerusalem, May 10, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox people lit bonfires for the Lag Ba'omer holiday in Israeli neighborhoods on Monday night, in violation of the emergency regulations banning them to prevent gatherings that could spread the coronavirus.

Police said they broke up the central gathering in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim, where as many as 1,000 people may have been present. 

Lag Ba'omer celebrations in Jerusalem, May 11, 2020.

There were smaller gatherings in other locations, including Modi'in Illit and Bnei Brak. Police said law enforcement who tried to break up a bonfire gathering of some 40 people in Modi'in Illit encountered stone throwing, and that one person was arrested. Four people were detained for questioning in Bnei Brak on suspicion of rioting. 

In wake of the violation of emergency restrictions, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, Acting Police Commissioner Motti Cohen, and National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat.  

During the meeting, Netanyahu vehemently condemned the lighting of bonfires and gatherings, adding that the enforcement of emergency regulations should be immediately bolstered and gatherings dispersed. Ben-Shabbat said that this kind of behavior could lead to a renewed coronavirus outbreak.  

The ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, neighborhoods in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh were focal points of the COVID-19 outbreak. At the end of April, a lockdown was imposed on two Beit Shemesh neighborhoods, when the number of confirmed cases exceeded 200.

A group of people congregate around a bonfire, Mea Shearim, Jerusalem, May 10, 2020.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Last month Haaretz reported that nearly 75 percent of the coronavirus cases in Jerusalem were in the city’s Haredi neighborhoods. The government imposed strict movement restrictions on some of them.

Last week, the cabinet passed regulations banning local bonfires in an effort to prevent gatherings on the Jewish holiday of Lag Ba'omer. They also limited access to Mount Meron, a holy site in the Upper Galilee region, where tens of thousands usually gather to mark the anniversary of the death of Rabbi Shimon Bar Yohai. 

During the cabinet discussion, Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich proposed allowing people to make small bonfires in their yards, but that idea was dropped due to objections by Fire Service Commissioner Dedi Simhi. 

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