Israel Has Not Indicted Anyone for Holding Illegal Gathering During Pandemic

Despite procedure to make it easier to indict someone for organizing illegal gathering, only indictment has been against someone who attended party while infected

Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel
Thousands at the funeral of Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik in Jerusalem, last week.
Thousands at the funeral of Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik in Jerusalem, last week.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Netael Bandel
Netael Bandel

Since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, there hasn’t been a single indictment against organizers of illegal gatherings, despite a new procedure that should make this easier. Police have launched hundreds of criminal investigations along these lines, but closed most of the cases, transferring less than a third of them to the State Prosecutor's Office.

The organizers of gatherings can be charged with “an act liable to transmit a disease,” but the sole indictment filed for this violation was against a young man who attended a party after he’d been diagnosed with COVID-19.

According to the new procedure established by the State Prosecutor's Office that went into effect on December 31, a criminal investigation for spreading disease can be opened in three instances: If a person organized a gathering of more than 300 people in an open area or more than 150 in a closed space; if a person diagnosed with COVID-19 violated his or her quarantine; or if a person with the virus “lies about a substantive issue or concealed substantive information during his epidemiological investigation.” Conviction carries a sentence of up to seven years’ imprisonment.

According to data obtained by Haaretz in response to a freedom of information request by Hatzlacha – the Movement for the Promotion of a Fair Society, the police have launched 400 criminal investigations of people suspected of spreading the virus since the pandemic began, resulting in 112 cases being forwarded to the prosecution and as noted, a single indictment.

The Ashkelon Magistrate’s Court is now hearing that case, in which a 24-year-old resident of Moshav Brachia who had contracted COVID-19 allegedly attended a party on the last day of his quarantine period. His lawyer, Sharon Vaknin, demanded that the charge be dropped on grounds of selective enforcement.

Given the defendant’s claim, Judge Anat Hulata asked the state to submit information on other cases opened for spreading disease. The state gave her only 25 files, even though police say they transferred 112. The prosecution explained the gap by saying it had given the judge only those cases against COVID patients who had violated their quarantine. Prosecutors said that of those 25 cases, some had been closed, on some no decision had been reached, and a few were at the stage of pre-indictment hearings. Two people seen likely to be indicted were sick and sought to fly abroad. One of them was caught at the airport before he flew to Uman.

After Haaretz reported in December that no one had been charged for organizing illegal gatherings because the prosecution had told the police it didn’t know how to legally overcome claims of selective enforcement, the prosecution drew up the new procedure, thinking this would make the claim of selective enforcement more difficult. Although a month has passed, police have given the prosecution only three cases of mass gatherings and no one has been indicted, despite widespread media coverage of numerous mass gatherings and events. There have been five investigations in Bnei Brak, four investigations in Mea She’arim, eight in Modi’in Ilit and 31 in Majdal Krum in the Galilee.

The police responded by saying, “Dozens of investigations were opened this month; most of them are probably still in progress and some will be given to the prosecution soon. Since the start of enforcement against the coronavirus, the police have opened hundreds of criminal files for violating the coronavirus regulations, the vast majority of them against forbidden gatherings and confirmed patients who violated quarantine.” The police said that of these, more than 80 cases had been transferred to the prosecution.

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