An estimated 300 people participated Saturday night in the funeral of Rabbi Tzvi Shinkar in the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak in central Israel, defying social distancing restrictions issued by the government.
Sources in law enforcement are pinning the blame directly on Tel Aviv district police commissioner David Bitan, saying he chose to avoid clashes with the community, rather than enforce the law.
The coronavirus is now spreading fastest in ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel, according to internal Health Ministry figures obtained by Haaretz.
The police initially requested to limit attendance but then agreed to allow the general public to participate after organizers promised people would maintain social distancing rules. In effect, mourners congregated closely and ignored police directions.
A senior police official told Haaretz that the police have been trying in recent weeks to reach understandings with community leaders in Bnei Brak and that there has been an improvement in adherence to directives. According to the officer, under any other circumstances, thousands would have attended the funeral.
A source in the Health Ministry who spoke with Haaretz was critical of the police conduct, adding that the gathering could have quickly escalated had the police intervened more aggressively.
Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said in response that the large number of participants at the funeral is "a very serious incident and life-threatening."
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He said that the police must enforce Health Ministry directives equally throughout the country and that he had summoned police commanders to a meeting Sunday regarding enforcement in the ultra-Orthodox community.
Last week, a senior police officer warned against poor enforcement of the guidelines in the ultra-Orthodox community, especially in Bnei Brak and in the Mea Shearim neighborhood in Jerusalem. In addition, officers in the Tel Aviv district point to a "command vacuum" in Bnei Brak, after the local commander, Deputy Superintendent Yair Weitzberg, tested positive for coronavirus and many of his commanders went into isolation.
Some also criticized the conduct of Bnei Brak Mayor Avraham Rubinstein, criticizing what they described as a careless approach to enforcing regulations. Rubinstein attended several weddings, including in his family, in the first few weeks, spreading reassuring messages to residents who did not conform to the Ministry of Health's position. His perspective changed lately, reportedly after after people around him, including his wife, were diagnosed with the disease.
Israel Police commented: "The guiding principle in this case was a quick end to the funeral and preventing clashes and much larger gatherings that would have escalated the situation." It added that contacts with community leaders succeeded in reducing the number of participants from thousands to hundreds but that "in light of the breach of directives, we will draw conclusions to prevent similar situations."