Ultra-Orthodox demonstrators have clashed with Israeli police in two major cities, as authorities faced new difficulties in enforcing coronavirus restrictions in the country’s religious communities.
The clashes on Sunday occurred in Jerusalem and Ashdod as police attempted to close religious schools that had opened in violation of lockdown orders.
Throughout the pandemic, many major ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects have flouted safety regulations, continuing to open schools, pray in synagogues and hold mass weddings and funerals.
This has contributed to a disproportionate infection rate, with the ultra-Orthodox community accounting for more than one-third of Israel’s coronavirus cases, despite making up just over 10 percent of the population.
In Jerusalem, police fired tear gas and putrid-smelling water to disperse a crowd of hundreds of ultra-Orthodox residents outside a reopened school.
Demonstrators cried “get out of here, Nazis” at officers who were filmed arresting participants. In the coastal city of Ashdod, police scuffled with dozens of protesters outside an ultra-Orthodox school.
Five police officers were wounded in the disputes, and at least four people were arrested, police said.
Al Jazeera’s Harry Fawcett, reporting from West Jerusalem, said anger was growing among many Israelis at ultra-Orthodox people flouting COVID restrictions, “given the kind of impact that the rapid spread of the virus inside these communities has had on the national health system and on the national economy”.
“[But Prime Minister] Benjamin Netanyahu at the same time, relies on ultra-Orthodox political parties for their support in his governing coalition – so he’s had to walk a fine balance,” Fawcett said.
“So as well as taking place on the street, this is a serious political issue for the Israeli prime minister as well,” he added.
With the country experiencing a raging coronavirus outbreak, the Israeli government last week extended the country’s third nationwide lockdown until the end of January.
Meanwhile, Israel announced it will ban passenger flights in and out of the country from Monday evening for a week as it seeks to stop the spread of the disease.
“Other than rare exceptions, we are closing the sky hermetically to prevent the entry of the virus variants and also to ensure that we progress quickly with our vaccination campaign,” Netanyahu said in public remarks at the start of a cabinet meeting on Sunday.
The ban will come into force from Monday at 12am (22:00 GMT) and will last until the end of January, a statement from Netanyahu’s office said.
Israel’s Health Ministry has recorded more than 595,000 cases of the virus since the start of the pandemic and 4,361 deaths.
New cases of the disease continue to climb, even as the country has launched a massive vaccination campaign.
Sunday’s clashes were the latest incident of heightened tensions over enforcement of lockdown rules in ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods in Israel.
On Friday, ultra-Orthodox Israelis attacked a police vehicle in the city of Bnei Brak, outside Tel Aviv. A crowd pelted the police car with stones and punctured its tyres.