It's 10 am on a weekday at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda Market. Dozens of people gather next to a vegetable booth selling second-rate tomatoes for rock bottom prices.
The crowd includes four ultra-Orthodox women in their 50s. The temperature outside has reached 32 degrees centigrade, but they don't mind. They're here on a mission.
One of them approaches a woman who shops at the market once a week. The woman, wearing a tank top and jeans, has her full attention on the tomato box. The haredi woman touches one of her bare arms. The woman turns around and the haredi woman immediately snaps at her, pointing at her bare arms: "Next time don't come to the market like this. Next time you'll come with sleeves."
The woman in the tank top tries not to appear insulted and looks at the other haredi women. One of them approaches a young woman in shorts and a sleeveless shirt. "Next time cover yourself," she orders her.
Mahane Yehuda Market. Blatant comments (Photo: Aner Green)
The haredim have been targeting Mahane Yehuda Market for quite a while. The patrol unit, which began touring the market alleys in recent weeks, is the result of growing haredi involvement in the area in the past 18 months.
The reason for their growing interest is the fact that the market is gradually becoming a multi-cultural center, a pilgrimage site for youngsters, visitors and tourists and a nightlife hot spot for many in the city.
The ultra-Orthodox battle was launched a year ago, when they declared war on the market area and the street parties held in the city center throughout the summer, claiming that the revival of the city center was creating lawlessness and harming their children's education.
The market merchants were shocked by the presence of the chastity squads, which they referred to as "an escalation" in the haredi conduct. "We won't have it. Such a chastity squad is intolerable and is a red line for us," said Shimon Darwish, head of the Mahane Yehuda Merchants Association.
"They are trying to create a fearful atmosphere and prevent people from coming to the market. We'll do everything in our power to find out who these women are. It won't be a problem to trace them. There are security cameras in the market and I plan to check who they are and make it clear to them that there is no place for them in the market."
Darwish added that he planned to patrol the market in order to prevent the phenomenon and make it clear to the chastity squad women that there is no room for them there.
"It's a private initiative, likely by haredi women," he said. "And yet, we won't ignore it. I plan to hold a comprehensive discussion on the matter, beyond the market's leadership. This must be taken care of."
Yaron Tzidkiyahu, the owner of Tzidkiyahu Delicacies and one of the market's most famous merchant, sees a link between the haredi women and the different chastity squads operating in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.
"The haredim are trying to test our boundaries. That's the way I see it. Naturally, we have no intention of giving in, and we'll show them the way out. The market is multi-cultural and we won't let the haredim interfere in what is happening here and set the tone," he said.
The different chastity squads have been trying in recent years not to get involved in any acts that could be considered criminal. According to Elhanan Buzaglo, a former activist in such a squad, "You must distinguish between women asking other women to dress modestly and violence. Some may be making the request in an obscene manner – and that's their problem," he said.
According to Buzaglo, the women operating in the market "may have been to an encouragement lecture and decided to implement what they heard there."
Buzaglo added that as far as he knew, the chastity squads operated exclusively in haredi neighborhoods. "Their activity among the haredim brings them donations. Operating among the seculars won't bring them a penny, so they don't go there at all."
Buzaglo's view is shared by Yehoshua Ohev Shalom, an activist of the Committee for Purity in the Camp, who claimed to be unfamiliar with such organized activity but praised the women.
"If they strengthen women it's a good thing, isn't it?"