Sabbath riot on the road to orthodoxy

Israel in turmoil: US visit leaves few options for talks as ultra- religious Jews increase pressure on holy city's secular population
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The Independent Online
"It is the Sabbath for you, too," shouted a black-coated ultra- orthodox young man as he waved his fist at a helicopter flying over Bar- Ilan street in Jerusalem on Saturday evening. A few minutes later, ultra- orthodox teenagers dragged a man in a red helmet off his motorcycle as he demonstrated his right to drive down Bar-Ilan, a much- used main road in Jerusalem, during the Sabbath.

The battle to close the road is at the centre of the struggle between religious and secular Israelis, because it bisects two deeply religious districts in Jerusalem. In the wake of their successes in the May elections, the ultra-orthodox, or Haredim, hope they will finally succeed in stopping traffic between dusk on Friday and dusk on Saturday.

"It will be closed within two months," predicted David, an ultra-orthodox, watching police horses trying to drive back demonstrators and onlookers. Secular Israelis fear he is right. Israel, the man who had been knocked off his motorcycle to the jeers of onlookers, said, as he picked himself up: "I know it is my duty as a citizen of Jerusalem to drive here."

Much of the violence during the riot came from the police. I was standing outside a clothes shop with some children from the neighbourhood when we were suddenly attacked by the riot squad, one of whom grabbed me round the neck until he was restrained by one of his officers. Later we were soaked by water cannon which drenched bystanders indiscriminately.

Avraham Ravitz, a member of the Knesset for the Torah Judaism party, said: "What happened tonight was a pogrom by bloodthirsty police officers. They beat children and pregnant women. I told them the protests would cease if they left, but they just wanted to hit the people."

This is something of an exaggeration, but the police were extraordinarily aggressive. At one point, a senior policeman with a bullhorn shouted at us to get out of the way. "Relax," said an Israeli journalist. "I don't want to relax," the officer yelled back. A boy crossing the road was grabbed by police and dragged off shouting: "I want to go home! I want to go home!"

The anger of the Haredim was directed more at the police than at secular demonstrators from the left-wing Meretz party. "If it wasn't for the police, all people would do is shout 'Shabbes, Shabbes' [Yiddish for the Sabbath] and throw a few stones," said a bystander.

Secular Israelis believe they are being squeezed out of Jerusalem, where a growing proportion of the Jewish population are Haredim. A sign of the growing intolerance was a notice on a lamp-post in Bar-Ilan which advertised a three-room flat for sale "for religious people only." It comes complete with "a Shabbat elevator", which operates automatically, so that the user does not have to press the button and make forbidden use of electricity.