Ultra-Orthodox Protesters Clash With Police Over COVID Rules, Attack Bus Driver

Bus set on fire, driver pepper sprayed in Bnei Brak ■ Thirteen police officers injured in protests in Ashdod ■ Objects thrown at police in Jerusalem

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Police forces at the scene of protests in Bnei Brak, January 24, 2021.
Police forces at the scene of protests in Bnei Brak, January 24, 2021. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

Hundreds of members of the radical ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem faction protested in Bnei Brak on Sunday against police enforcement of coronavirus restrictions. 

A 41-year-old bus driver was hurt after being attacked with pepper spray by protesters, who proceeded to set the bus on fire. According to witnesses, the attackers shouted "he's an Arab." The blaze prompted authorities to evacuate residents living on the same street, and police dispersed protesters by using stun grenades. Several residents said police and firefighters only arrived about an hour after the incident was reported, despite a police station being only minuites away. 

Earlier, according to a police statement, the protesters, who gathered near the city's central synagogue, threw stones at officers. One officer fired his gun into the air in response, after he felt that his life was in danger. 

A policeman chases a young ultra-Orthodox man in the city of Bnei Brak in Israel, January 24, 2021.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Hundreds of protesters blocked main roads in the city, and some attacked news teams from Kan 11 and Channel 13. Police used stun grenades to try to disperse the crowds.

Earlier in the evening, witnesses said protesters tried to attack an Egged bus driver; they smashed the bus's windshield and sprayed fire extinguishers inside of the vehicle. The bus driver managed to escape, abandoning bus in the middle of a main intersection while protesters set fires and lit firecrackers. The demonstrators also uprooted street signs and torched a lamppost. 

The Egged bus company put out a statement saying that "We expect that the Israel Police, as well as the Transportation Ministry, will help public transportation drivers deal with this intolerable situation that has been occurring since the third lockdown on a near-daily basis." 

Meanwhile, four suspects turned themselves in to police following their involvement in attacks on police officers on Thursday in Bnei Brak, and were taken for investigation.

The Jerusalem faction issued a statement ahead of the demonstrations in Bnei Brak, slamming the "shameful harassment" of the ultra-Orthodox communities as well as the "violent" methods used by the police. 

Police forces at the scene of protests in Bnei Brak, January 24, 2021.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

In the city of Beit Shemesh, police were assaulted after dispersing a large, illegal wedding. Police said that a number of the wedding guests threw items at the police and set fire to garbage cans, and that officers are using crowd control methods to quell them.

Thirteen police officers were wounded in clashes between ultra-Orthodox residents and police in the port city of Ashdod. Police confirmed the reports of the injured officers, adding that 15 were arrested.

Police forces arrived at the Grodno Hasidic institution in the city to prevent studies from taking place in breach of coronavirus regulations. “Throughout last week, police had enforced the regulations at the site, whose heads had refused to stop its activities. A crowd gathered at the site and issued calls against the police, and attempts were made by some of the crowd to force their way into the institution,” the police said.

Meanwhile, hundreds of ultra-Orthodox residents also clashed with police in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea She’arim, throwing stones, eggs and garbage at them.

The police arrived at the scene to disperse a gathering held in violation against coronavirus regulations at a synagogue belonging to the Satmar Hasidic sect.

The police said that “Dozens of people gathered at the site, and hundreds more joined following police activity there.” The police used water cannons to disperse the crowd and so far one arrest has clasbeen made.

A vandalized bus in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak in Israel, January 24, 2021.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

On Saturday night, the leader of the Viznitz Hasidic sect ordered all of its institutions to open on Sunday, in breach of the coronavirus regulations. Viznitz is the third largest Hasidic community in Israel, and thousands of children are enrolled in its schools. Ultra-Orthodox institutions also opened Sunday Bnei Brak.

Ultra-Orthodox lawmakers call on police to exit Bnei Brak

Knesset members from the Haredi parties held an emergency meeting in the Bnei Brak municipality on Sunday night, in light of clashes between protesters and police.

During the meeting, they roundly criticized the police for their actions during the riots, including one case in which an officer, surrounded by protesters pelting them with stones, allegedly fired his gun into the air, saying he feared for his life.

Mayor Abraham Rubinstein said that “The Bnei Brak Municipality, in all its parts and partners, condemns and decries the acts of violence against Israel’s regime equivocally and in every forum. Every act of violence against a person, property, and against every figure is an unforgivable crime that we do not agree with in any form.” He said that the events will be handled “educationally and rabinically,” and that community leaders are responsible.

But he also called on the police to leave the city, and to “let the city carry on its way of life as usual, as it has for decades,” and that “The Israel Police top the list of those responsible for the catastrophe taking place in our city for several days now.” He called police attempts to enforce COVID-19 rules “provocative, harmful and abusive activity” that bullies city residents with collective punishment.

Yaakov Litzman, chairman of the United Torah Judaism party, said that people violate coronavirus guidelines in Tel Aviv and at protests against the prime minister, as well. He condemned the police: “The police started using firearms today, and that is something that we can’t ignore. We heard that next thing, the defense minister will use air force planes according to the situation.” He called for an independent inquiry into the report.

The chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, UTJ MK Moshe Gafni, also harshly condemned the police’s actions. He said that although the Haredi community is suffering heavily from the coronavirus pandemic, “it is inconceivable that because there are [COVID rule] violations on the beaches of Tel Aviv, that they would close the neighborhood and fire flashbangs and smoke grenades and tear gas like they’re doing here in Bnei Brak.”