Israel’s Coronavirus lockdown fuels protests, violence and confusion

By Isabel Kershner

Fractured by internal political conflicts, confusing instructions and a lack of public trust in the government, Israel seems to be fraying further under a second national lockdown as the country struggles to cope with a surge in coronavirus cases and deaths that, relative to the size of the population, are among the worst in the world.

With new daily cases of the coronavirus reaching up to 9,000 recently, here are some of the main factors contributing to the sense of chaos and loss of control.

Curbs on anti-Netanyahu protests have backfired.

For months, tens of thousands of demonstrators have been calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is standing trial on corruption charges and has been the focus of blame for many Israelis over the country’s handling of the pandemic. Netanyahu, a polarizing conservative, has portrayed the protesters as left-wing anarchists and has accused them, without evidence, of spreading the virus in mass gatherings outside his Jerusalem residence.

After coronavirus regulations were tightened late last month, the government approved temporary restrictions on the demonstrations, confining protests to groups of up to 20 people wearing masks, standing 2 meters apart, and gathering no farther than 1 kilometer, or just over half a mile, from their homes.

Critics considered the curbs anti-democratic and found ways to fight back. On Saturday night, hundreds of smaller protests took place all over the country, with the largest gatherings shifting to Tel Aviv.

Protest leaders have vowed to continue. Urging Netanyahu to resign, many have adopted the Hebrew word for “Go!” as a rallying cry.

But there has also been an increase in attacks by those who oppose the demonstrations. In television interviews with anti-Netanyahu protesters, a woman said she had been punched in the face in Tel Aviv and a man said he had been left with a broken arm in Pardes Hana-Karkur, in the north.

The police were also accused of violence as they detained or dispersed protesters.

On Sunday, police said that they had detained 38 protesters in the Tel Aviv area overnight and that many had been fined for offenses such as not wearing masks, blocking roads or breaching social distancing orders.

Ron Huldai, 76, the mayor of Tel Aviv, who had joined the city’s main protest, went home with a bloodied arm. The government had placed the police in an “impossible position” and turned them into “a political tool,” Huldai said on Israeli television, adding that the scene had been calm and orderly until officers had moved in with force.

Many ultra-Orthodox are flouting rules and getting sick.

Preventing large gatherings, especially in Israel’s crowded ultra-Orthodox areas, was always going to be a challenge during the Jewish High Holy Days, which began Sept. 18 and extend until Oct. 11. Dr. Ronni Gamzu, Israel’s coronavirus czar, said last week that 40% of those testing positive came from the ultra-Orthodox community, even though it makes up only about 13% of the population.

Even so, some Hasidic sects insisted on holding indoor prayers and large gatherings to celebrate Sukkot, the Jewish harvest holiday. Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, 92, a leading ultra-Orthodox authority, tested positive for the virus last week. Police said that they had closed at least 22 synagogues that were operating illegally over the weekend.

Stormy confrontations broke out Sunday in some ultra-Orthodox areas. In the West Bank settlement of Beitar Illit, police officers were shown on video throwing a bucket at and then aggressively dragging away a boy who was accused of throwing a chunk of concrete at a police vehicle. The police said they would investigate the officers’ conduct.

In the cities of Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, crowds clashed with the police overnight. Two officers were wounded when objects were thrown at them, police said Monday. One rabbi of an extremist ultra-Orthodox branch told his followers not to fear the authorities and to perform all the usual holiday customs.

In a less confrontational scene — which drew much online criticism — police officers received a blessing from a Hasidic rabbi after they arrived to ensure compliance with the lockdown.

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