A Battle Over COVID Rules Breaks Out in Israeli Haredi City. This Is What It Looked Like

Large police forces arrived at a Bnei Brak yeshiva only a few hours after two officers were injured by ultra-Orthodox extremists while attempting to disperse gathering

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Members of the Border Police arresting an ultra-Orthodox man in Bnei Brak, January 22, 2021.
Members of the Border Police arresting an ultra-Orthodox man in Bnei Brak, January 22, 2021. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

At around 11 P.M., the reports began streaming in: large police contingents near the yeshiva on Shlomo Hamelech Street in Tel Aviv suburb Bnei Brak. Nearby only a few hours earlier, a female detective and an inspector had been injured by a mob.

From the moment the pictures of the violence were posted, it was clear the police wouldn’t let it go. On Twitter, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana promised a response, and 15 minutes later, the police had already occupied the small street – with stun grenades going off in the background.

This nighttime incident was unusual: the batons, the stun grenades and the location, the largely ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak. Also unusual was the identity of the people on the receiving end of the violence – young people from the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, mainstream.

“There has been a strategic mistake by the police here – what would have happened if instead of the police going around like madmen in the city streets they had dealt specifically with the attack on the police officers?” asked a Haredi man from Bnei Brak.

“They could have arrested the principal of the yeshiva and the head of the yeshiva, identified the attackers – after all everything was filmed – and tried them. If they had done that, the entire Haredi community would have stood and applauded the police.”

Immediately after they arrived, the police moved to Ezra Street nearby. A few youths who threw stones at the police fled into a supermarket, and the police – dressed in riot gear – tried to forcibly enter it.

Only a few minutes later, the crowd began to rise up. Some locals went into the street, others stood on balconies and roofs and watched. Others peeked through the windows of the many yeshivas.

Hundreds blocked the road while burning garbage cans and throwing objects at the police. In the background were cries of “get out of here” and “Nazis,” with a police helicopter hovering overhead.

The police even entered certain apartments, but it’s still not clear who they were looking for. Video shows officers randomly kicking detainees or striking them with their batons.

The police, however, say they “handled violent disturbances by a law-breaking mob that brutally and without restraint attacked police forces and injured seven police officers,” in a neighborhood not known for following the coronavirus regulations stringently.

A group of women watching police in riot gear on duty in Bnei Brak, January 22, 2021.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Stun grenades, stones and fireworks

A local reporter, Itamar Cohen, filmed as some people were removed from the street. “Immediately after they started with stun grenades, four cops came running fast and immediately attacked,” Cohen told Haaretz, his face bruised and bandaged.

“I got punched in the eye and head, I got a deep cut near my right eye. I showed them an ID and they told me they didn’t care.” Ynet website journalist Itay Blumental also says he was shoved aggressively.

The night went on with the police chasing teenagers into small alleyways and hurling dozens of stun grenades, while the youths responded with stones and fireworks. Even in the nearby yard of Chaim Kanievsky, a prominent rabbi, the ruckus could be heard.

Before 3 A.M., a group of demonstrators fled into a parking lot, the police ran after them and were filmed beating protesters after they were already under control and in inferior numbers – the police used batons as well. According to police regulations, batons may only be used with the permission of the district commander or his deputy, and are reserved for particularly violent disturbances.

On Friday, a senior Haredi politician, Construction and Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman, condemned the operation in Bnei Brak, calling it “a wild and aggressive revenge campaign by the inflamed police using collective punishment against hundreds of thousands of city residents, innocent of any crime.”

Litzman said there was no justification for any violence, also not against police doing their duty. “Any use of violence is improper and must be condemned,” he said.

But Litzman also harshly condemned the use of stun grenades and water cannons, as well as the order to send in forces that used batons on passersby. The police endangered a large number of people throughout the night, Litzman said.

All for Likud and Netanyahu?

A member of the community told Haaretz that relations between the police and the Haredim would now depend on whether the coronavirus lockdowns continue. “If in two more weeks everything opens, people will forget about what happened because the public’s memory is very short,” he said.

“The tragedy is that now it’s actually the extremists who have become the heroes. Still, if it continues this way for the next few weeks, people in Bnei Brak will try to distance themselves from the extremist groups. But to tell the truth, it’s still too early to figure out how things will develop.”

The man said Ohana, the public security minister, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had sent in the police to buoy Likud’s campaign in the run-up to the March 23 general election. “The secular community doesn’t understand the differences between the different groups and doesn’t know how the cooperation is continuing normally,” he said.

A police official said the force would no longer allow disrespect of a police officer patrolling in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood. “The days when police officers walked the streets of Haredi cities and were cursed and had rocks thrown at them are over,” he said. “When a group tries to kill police officers, we will respond with strength.”

He said that “unlike the cynical noises made by those condemning the police,” many others have thanked the police for their effort in Bnei Brak.

“We reject out of hand the claims and tweets lacking any content or logic that there was ‘too strict’ enforcement, while many lawbreakers threw rocks at police officers, hit and injured police officers, rioted, disturbed the peace and set garbage cans on fire,” the police said.

The new police commissioner, Kobi Shabtai, added: “The violence the police are experiencing in their various enforcement actions in recent days deserve condemnation and have led to scenes we cannot accept and will not accept …. I regret that this is not the only incident this week in which police enforcing the coronavirus regulations have been attacked, and it’s just getting bigger.”

He said the police would deal with such incidents strictly and in every community, while carefully carrying out equal enforcement.

“We expect the local governments, public leaders and relevant government ministries to take stricter sanctions against the institutionalized violations that we have seen,” he said. “Also, I expect every law-abiding person in the country to condemn those who violate the law.”

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