By Sam Sokol –
“Sam, there is a riot in Beit Shemesh,” my editor said.
I had just woken up and was contemplating the shape of my upcoming day, wondering what to write about when I got the call. There was a riot in progress five minutes from my house and as the man on the scene in Beit Shemesh, I was tasked with providing coverage.
As my photographer was out sick, I was also tasked with taking photos of the event as well, a task for which I know that I am suited only in an ex-post facto capacity. I’m a writer, not a photographer.
I fired up my laptop on the dining room table and immediately saw online that members of the Atra Kadisha, a haredi group focused on the preservation of ancient graves, was tearing it up only blocks from my house at the end of Nahal Arugot, a dead end street bounded by apartment houses on one side and undeveloped hills on the other.
At the end of the street was a construction site where the members of the Atra Kadisha believed that there were ancient Jewish graves. Rabbi Shterboch of the Eidah Haredit had given his agreement for construction to commence and presumably the Israel Antiquities Authority, which surveys sites slated for building, had cleared the area for construction.
However, Yitzhak Tuvia Weiss, the top honcho at the Eidah disagreed, and the Atra Kadisha was out in force, claiming Weiss’ ruling as their moral authority.
Starting early in the morning the extremists attempted to break into the fenced in site to disturb the work and when the police arrived and began arresting haredim the fireworks started. Confrontations between haredim and the police quickly became ugly and when I arrived some time later, a line of cops stretched across the street, faced by a mob of extremists.
They had come from the Ramat Bet Shemesh Bet and Kirya Haredit neighborhoods and as I watched, locals from Ramat Bet Shemesh Alef, where I live, yelled at the protesters, telling them to go home and to stop being violent.
Each time sometime snuck through and was detained, or someone attempted to break through the line of police and was pushed back, the tension was ratcheted up a notch until you cut could it with a knife.
As the extremists yelled obscenities against the state of Israel and the police (“Nazis!” “You will die!” “The state of Israel is impure!”) the police managed to clear the road long enough for a truck and trailer with horses to come through. Soon, two officers on horseback were riding through the crowds, dispersing the rioters who would immediately reform.
As scuffles increased, the police brought in a riot truck with a roof mounted high pressure water cannon. From time to time it would sally forth from behind the police lines and spray the protesters.
It was a shock to see this quiet street in chaos. Only several weeks earlier I had come to one of the houses that was now mute witness to the violence to celebrate the engagement of my sister-in-law.
I was standing on a wall photographing the scene, a few rioters standing around me when I noticed the cannon turn in my direction. I jumped off the wall and beat a hasty retreat when I felt the full force of its spray in my lower right back, soaking me.
As I ran from the horses (almost slipping underfoot) and dodged the water spray, I photographed the haredim fighting and ran between the local residents who had come out of their houses to witness the scene.
One group of haredim had hidden behind a car to escape the water jet, one of the men holding up a white plastic chair as a shield.
Later on, one of the demonstrators threw the chair at the police and I set off in hot pursuit of the rioter and the police officer chasing him with a stun gun.
I walked past the line of police (being a member of the press has its perks) and walked up a hill to the construction site with a colleague who knew the way.
Standing on a rise next to a temporary structure housing the construction office, I saw several private security guards pushing and pulling a haredi man away from their construction equipment.
They roughly made him sit on the ground, backs against the wall of the office, next to another man they had detained. On the head of one of the men they had placed a cardboard carton which he wore until the police arrived and made the guards remove it.
Coming down I noticed thick, acrid smoke and suddenly understood that someone had seat a brushfire on the hills on the far side of the street.
I noticed that up the street some of the local schools had let out and the students were standing around, breathing in the smoke and milling about in a confused way. Walking past them to get a better look at the spreading fire, I heard a small and scared voice calling my name.
I turned around to see one of the small children of one of my cousin’s who also lives in town. I called his father and told him what was going on.
I grabbed the boy’s hand and helped cover his mouth to protect him from the smoke, whose order had spread for blocks, and we made our way to his home, meeting his father on the way.
Stopping by the local liquor store for an energy drink for some quick caffeine, I made my way back to the fight in time to see more men dragged across the sidewalks and one protester, who had fallen when hit by a water cannon, bleed so badly through a wound below his ear that he had to be taken to the hospital by an ambulance.
He was covered in blood.
I’ve covered extremists before and I’m been at other protests. I’ve been teargassed and I’ve been in fear for my safety. However, I have never been as affected by such scenes as I was on Monday, when the violence came to my neighborhood and I saw my relatives, my friends and my neighbors put in harm’s way.
I think I need a beer.