Tel Aviv seems to be in no rush to begin strictly enforcing its own Sabbath closure regulations, and will likely ask for an extension on imposing the bylaw on businesses in the city that remain open between sunset Friday and sunset Saturday.
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On June 25, in response to a petition by seven Tel Aviv grocers, the High Court of Justice ordered the municipality to decide between fully enforcing the rule or rescinding it. The court’s 60-day deadline is this weekend.
Enforcement of the regulation has been inconsistent, if profitable for the city: Some business owners say they are fined every week by municipal inspectors, at NIS 730 a pop, while others say they are only fined every few weeks. The setup has allowed city hall to maintain a mix of businesses that are open on Shabbat while profiting from the fines it does charge, but the court says the city cannot continue to have it both ways.
The ruling forces the municipality to address long-standing conflicts among competing commercial, social cultural and religious interests: Aggressive enforcement of the bylaw would mean closing all supermarkets and convenience stores on Shabbat. But repealing the regulation entirely would pave the way for allowing all types of businesses to open, and that could violate national labor laws.
The city appointed a special team, composed mainly of high-ranking municipal officials, to examine the issue.
"This is a very serious matter with many broad implications," said one senior official, who did not want to be identified. "The team is tasked with finding a formula that can cover everyone, and this isn't simple. There are many possibilities: One is to define commercial streets where business is permitted on Shabbat. We want to keep residential areas free from commerce as was the case up to now, except of course for entertainment venues. In any case, all possibilities are on the table at this point."
In the meantime, the city’s legal department is working on its response to the High Court. As a first step, sources say, the municipality will request a postponement until after Israel’s October 22 municipal election. For now, the city is not issuing fines for violations of the Shabbat closure rules.
That has saved some business owners a major expense. About 2,500 of Tel Aviv 30,000 businesses sell food; hundreds of these shops open on Shabbat.
Two big chains, Tiv Ta’am and AM:PM, have branches in the city that are open on Friday and Saturday. The BDI business research firm estimates that they would lose a combined NIS 160 million in revenues if forced to close their doors on the Sabbath.
The municipality has said its reply to the court will "convey the spirit expressed many times by the mayor, that Tel Aviv–Jaffa will remain a free city."