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Covid-19: Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Israelis protest over lockdown rules

Anger has mounted as the government has moved to close illegal religious schools and seminaries
Policemen detain an ultra-Orthodox Jew during a protest over coronavirus restrictions in Ashdod, Israel on 24 January 2021 (Reuters)

Hundreds of members of Israel's ultra-Orthodox community have taken to the streets of the country to protest the imposition of lockdown rules to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic.

Protesters scuffled with police in the city of Bnei Brak, while a 41-year-old bus driver was hurt after he was attacked with pepper spray by demonstrators, who proceeded to set his bus on fire, according to Reuters and eyewitnesses who posted video footage on Twitter.

One police officer reportedly fired in the air to repel crowds throwing stones after feeling his life was in danger. Police said that smaller confrontations with ultra-Orthodox protesters also broke out in several other towns, including the port city of Ashdod.

Police also said they came under attack after dispersing a large, illegal wedding in the city of Beit Shemesh. A number of the wedding guests reportedly threw items at officers and set fire to garbage cans.

Much of the anger has stemmed from ultra-Orthodox attempts to reopen religious schools and seminaries, which had been closed by the Covid-19 lockdown measures.

Ultra-Orthodox parties have long been political allies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud party.

Passenger flights banned

On Sunday, Israel announced it would be banning passenger flights in and out of the country from Monday evening for a week.

Netanyahu's office said in a statement that the ban on flights would last until the end of January.

"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," said the statement.

The country's borders have largely been closed to foreigners during the pandemic, with only Israeli passport holders allowed entry.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews protest over COVID-19 restrictions in Ashdod (Reuters)
Ultra-Orthodox Jews protest over Covid-19 restrictions in Ashdod (Reuters)

The country has been under a third national lockdown since 27 December. Critics say the government has mishandled the crisis, lacking a clear long-term strategy and allowing politics to cloud its decisions.

The government had intended to lift the lockdown at the end of January but Education Minister Yoav Galant, speaking on Ynet TV, said it was too early to know if schools would reopen next month.

Israel expanded its rapid vaccination drive on Sunday to include late teens in what the government described as an effort to enable their attendance at school exams.

The vaccines were initially limited to the elderly and other high-risk categories, but are now available to anyone over 40 or - with parental permission - those between 16 and 18.

Israel has the world's fastest vaccine distribution rate. With regular imports of Pfizer Inc. vaccines, it has administered at least one dose to more than 25 percent of its 9 million population since 19 December, the Health Ministry says.

Netanyahu announced on Sunday he would propose to parliament a new aid package for businesses, households and unemployed Israelis hit by the crisis.