Police again cracked down on the hareidi neighborhood of Mea She'arim Wednesday night, arresting dozens as protesters conducted angry protests against police interference in neighborhood affairs.
Protests, mostly by members of the Gerrer Hasidic sect and members and supporters of the hard-line Sikrikim group, have been going on for weeks, with residents burning tires and garbage bins, and throwing rocks and other objects at police. But over the past few days police responded in force – much to the surprise of many protesters, witnesses said.
Among the tactics used by police was the deployment of undercover police dressed in hareidi garb who circulated among the protesters. When some protesters began throwing rocks at police, these “hareidim” quickly arrested them. Police have been using this tactic for several nights, and have managed to arrest dozens of protesters in this manner – a wave of arrests that has not taken place for many years, neighborhood veterans say.
The protests and violence are part of what has been essentially a long-running dispute over a prime parcel of Mea She'arim real estate, called Batei Varshaw (“Warsaw Houses”), originally meant for use by poor hareidi immigrant families from Poland, but now at the center of a struggle over affordable housing and real estate development involving longtime residents (who claim they are being forced out), Gerrer Hasidim (who claim the Sikrikim group is trying to drive out Gerrer residents of the area), and the Sikrikim (who claim the Gerrer Hasidim are seeking to take over and use the area for a mass real estate project).
Batei Varshaw, with 150 apartments, is located right off Shabbat Square at the center of Mea She'arim -- and almost everyone agrees that the 130-year-old neighborhood is badly in need of an upgrade due to its dilapidated state.
The dispute has engendered angry words and worse between the groups; several weeks ago, a resident of Mea She'arim, Avraham Hirschman, was beaten badly by a group of people he says were Gerrer Hasidim, who claim that he was a member of the Sikrikim and had vandalized the home of the Gerrer Rebbe. Hirschman, who was treated for multiple wounds in Hadassah Ein-Kerem Hospital, denies being a member of the group, and says he knows nothing about the vandalism.
The dispute has been responsible for tensions in hareidi-religious communities in other towns and cities in Israel, such as Beit Shemesh. Several weeks ago, the supervisory council Eida HaChareidit, considered the supreme authority for hareidi Jews in Mea She'arim, issued a demand that the violence stop immediately.
Jerusalem Police spokesman Shmuel Ben-Ruby told Arutz Sheva that in recent days police have arrested 10 Gerrer Hasidim and 15 Sikrikim on charges of rioting and damaging private property.
“The recent riots in the area were actually due to police intervention,” said Ben-Ruby, as both sides united briefly to eject authorities. “Ninety five percent of Mea Shearim residents are not involved in these affairs and seek a quiet life. There is a small group of radicals who seek to disrupt the public order. Obviously I cannot list all of the tactics we use, but we are making good progress in dealing with the problem,” Ben Ruby added.