In two weeks, Philip Weissfeld will do what no Israeli has ever done before. The 43-year-old will become the first person in the country to stand trial for violating coronavirus regulations.
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In early April, during the first lockdown, Weissfeld, who immigrated from Russia three years ago and lives in Haifa, was allegedly found outside of his place of residence for a reason that was not permitted under the regulations in effect at the time.
Weissfeld remembers he was handed a 500-shekel ($147) ticket while at the beach, but he doesn’t recall requesting to go to court over it. He is still struggling with Hebrew. “I have no idea what I’m supposed to be tried for,” he says, with the aid of a friend who translates for him. “I was on the beach with a few other people and with a mask on, and these two guys came up to me and gave me a ticket. I wish I knew what it was all about.”
Weissfeld is one of 885 Israelis who have been charged by the police after they refused to pay a fine for violating the emergency regulations and requested to go to trial instead. The Haifa Magistrate’s Court, where he will be tried, is the first to have scheduled trials. Next month, several sessions will also take place at the Petah Tikva Magistrate’s Court, in the center of the country. In each of these courthouses, a single judge will rule on dozens of cases each day. The police will likely try to reach a settlement with some of the defendants before they enter the courtroom, but in most cases there isn’t much room for compromise.
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Elad Yanko, 39, a teacher from Haifa, received a fine after surfing alone at a Haifa beach in April. He will be next in line after Weissfeld to go to court. “What angered me was that there were lots of people on the beach, but no one else got a ticket,” he says. “I was surfing alone. I didn’t come with anyone and I didn’t harm anyone. The easiest thing would be just to pay, but I don’t think I deserve this fine and I’m not going to just give in,” Yanko said.
The charges are called “emergency fine cases” but are formulated just like criminal indictments, although they will not be recorded as such. The police estimate that thousands of Israelis will request to go to court over fines received for violations of coronavirus regulations. In the court system, some have expressed concern that it could cause the whole system to grind to a halt.
The cost of these court proceedings will likely far exceed the fines themselves. Some cases list 10 or more witnesses, almost all of them police officers, who could be summoned to appear in court. Some of the accused may be eligible to request a court-appointed public defender.
The district where the most charges have been filed is the Jerusalem District, with a total of 352, even though this district is not the most highly populated. However, the president of the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court has yet to assign a judge to these cases. Surprisingly, the district with the fewest cases is Tel Aviv, where 65 charges have been filed. The southern district has about 100 cases, but the court proceedings there won’t begin until January.
A minority of the charges were filed against business owners who allegedly opened their business in violation of the regulations. Many of them plan to fight it.
Avraham Zehavi, owner of a hardware store in Kfar Hasidim in northern Israel, is alleged by the police to have unlawfully opened his business. “I’ll pursue justice until the very end,” he vows, and recounts his story: “Two police jeeps showed up here like it was a military operation. Every day I checked with the Home Front Command and I was told I could open the shop but without serving customers. The police officers came and informed me that I’m getting a 5,000-shekel fine. I asked why. I asked them to explain, to give me a warning. One policeman said, ‘That doesn’t interest me, you can say what you have to say in court.’ So I really am going to court. The economic situation is very tough already as it is. To this day, I haven’t even seen the indictment against me. It’s not fair. They want money? Fine, but not this way.”