Police in Jerusalem said five people have been arrested over spitting attacks against Christians over the Jewish holiday of Sukkot, as far-right government politicians sought to downplay the incidents.
A statement from the force said four adults and a child were apprehended on Wednesday morning.
During the past week, footage has emerged of ultra-Orthodox Jews, many of them minors, spitting at clergy, pilgrims and religious buildings.
In the police statement, Jerusalem District Commander Doron Turgeman described the attacks as “disgraceful acts of hatred” perpetrated by people who have “a serious problem … in their education, world view, and respect for others”.
Despite recent condemnations from the police, rabbis and senior politicians and some far-right government politicians sought to downplay the incidents on Wednesday.
Far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, who is in charge of policing, said spitting was “not a criminal case” and that “we need to act on it through instruction and education. Not everything justifies an arrest”.
Member of Knesset Simcha Rothman said the incidents were being “blown out of proportion”.
Christians make up less than 1 per cent of Israel’s population.
Local Christians have long complained that Israeli authorities are not doing enough to fight a growing wave of harassment, despite Israel frequently claiming it is the only safe place for Christians in the Middle East.
The Protecting Holy Land Christians campaign warns that attacks, manoeuvres to seize Christian property and desecration of religious sites are existential threats to the community’s historic presence in the region.
“At this rate of decline within a generation there will be no Christian communities left in the Holy [Land],” its website says.
Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem Pierbattista Pizzaballa said during a press conference last month that the attacks have become more common recently and are “related to ultra-Orthodox and religious-Zionist groups and movements”.
The Jerusalem police statement came a day after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed “zero tolerance” for the attacks.
“I strongly condemn any attempt to inflict harm on worshippers, and we will take urgent steps against such actions,” he added.
“Offensive behaviour towards worshippers is a desecration and is unacceptable. We will show zero tolerance towards any harm to worshippers.”
Similar condemnations came from ultra-Orthodox politicians in the current coalition, including Religious Affairs Minister Michael Malkieli, who said such harassment was “not the way of the Torah, and there is no rabbi that supports or gives legitimacy to this reprehensible behaviour”.
President Isaac Herzog has issued a number of particularly intense condemnations in recent months.
In July, he said he “utterly condemn[s] violence, in all its forms, directed by a small and extreme group, towards the holy places of the Christian faith, and against Christian clergy in Israel”.
He added that Israel was committed to bringing an end “to this disturbing reality, which is perverse evil and an utter disgrace for us as a society and a country”.
Christian pilgrims make up a sizeable proportion of Israel’s tourism income, and Christian Zionist organisations are a strong pillar of western support for Israel, particularly in the US.