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Defying restrictions, thousands snatch body from hospital, hold funeral for Israeli Druze leader who died of COVID-19

Virus czar says all those at funeral in locked down town of Majdal Shams should test for COVID-19; body of Sheikh Abu Zain Al-Din Hassan Halabi was snatched from the hospital

By Times of Israel staff, Saturday October 31, 2020

Thousands of people on Saturday took part in a funeral for a Druze sheikh in defiance of lockdown measures limiting gatherings, after his body was snatched from a hospital.

The mass funeral for Sheikh Abu Zain Al-Din Hassan Halabi was held in the Golan border town of Majdal Shams, which is currently under lockdown due to its number of active COVID-19 cases per capita, which is currently the highest in Israel.

Many of those at the funeral appeared to observe social distancing guidelines, with chairs for participants placed at a distance from each other, though there also seemed to be some crowding.

Most of those present were pictured wearing masks.

In addition to the ceremony, which took place in a large field, a funeral procession was held.

The funeral came after rioters from Majdal Shams broke into Safed’s Ziv Medical Center on Friday evening to take the body of the sheikh, who died from coronavirus hours before.

Deputy Commissioner Shimon Lavi, the head of the northern police district, on Saturday ordered a commission be formed to probe the incident and officers’ conduct during the mass gatherings linked to the funeral.

The commission will also recommend how police should act in the future when a prominent figure or religious leader dies in light of the limitations on gatherings, Channel 12 news reported.

Meanwhile, Druze spiritual leader Sheikh Muafak Tarif condemned the break-in at the hospital.

“The incident that happened at Ziv Medical Center in Safed was not with the knowledge of the community’s leadership or the family of the deceased, who had a senior religious status among community members and deserves all respect,” Tarif was quoted saying by the Kan public broadcaster.

He also said the funeral was held in coordination with police, the military’s Home Front Command and the Majdal Shams municipality.

Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu called for all those who attended the funeral to be tested for COVID-19, expressing concern it could lead to outbreaks in Druze towns.

“I ask the Druze community to increase the number of tests,” he said during a visit to the northern Arab town of Fureidis.

Government officials had been seeking to prevent the mass funeral due to the already high morbidity rate in Majdal Shams and the sides had been working on a compromise, which would have seen the ceremony held at an outdoor gymnasium with a limited number of participants. Opponents of the compromise broke into Ziv hospital before an agreement was reached.

Video said to be from the scene showed the rioters throwing aside police barricades, shoving security personnel, pounding on the hospital door, marching down the medical center’s hallways and carrying the body through a parking lot.

After securing Halabi’s body, his followers set out on a funeral procession from the town of Mas’ade to nearby Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights.

“How do they not understand that a procession like this in the most inflamed area of the country is simply a disaster?” Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch wrote Saturday on Twitter. “This will cost them and us hundreds of infected, serious patients and unfortunately probably also fatalities. Frustrating and sad.” MK Gadeer Mreeh (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Yesh Atid MK Gadeer Mreeh, who is Druze, also condemned the incident.

“This behavior isn’t befitting of the esteemed status of the late honorable sheikh,” she tweeted. “All of us must listen and act in accordance with the Health Ministry instructions.”

Druze residents of Majdal Shams and the Golan are Syrian in origin, and are permanent residents of Israel but not citizens, unlike Druze in other areas of Israel, who have historically made major contributions to public service in the country, especially in the realm of security.

Israeli Druze, members of a 1,000-year-old offshoot of Shiite Islam, number some 145,000 people and live primarily in the country’s north. Illustrative: A woman stands next to a makeshift checkpoint in the Druze village of Majdal Shams in the Golan Heights on April 9, 2020. (Jalaa Marey/AFP)

Mass community events are believed to have played a significant part in Israel’s virus outbreak, especially religious events among some ultra-Orthodox groups and weddings in some Arab communities.

Government ministers decided Friday to extend the closure of Majdal Shams, and impose a weeklong local lockdown on the northern Arab Israeli locality of Bu’eine Nudeidat due to the high virus infection rates in both areas.

In addition to a closure of almost all businesses, entry and exit from both Bu’eine Nujeidat and Majdal Shams will be restricted. The nationwide opening of schools for grades 1-4 will be delayed there but kindergartens, which reopened last week, will continue to operate.

Last week, Majdal Shams, located near the Syrian border in the Golan Heights, became the first Israeli town to face a citywide lockdown since Israel lifted hot zone restrictions from all areas except for one Jerusalem neighborhood, as part of the so-called traffic light plan. Under the plan, areas are graded by morbidity rates and assigned a color-coded designation. Red zones, those with the highest infection rates, are to be locked down and activities there heavily restricted.

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