Cabinet agrees tougher lockdown — but many Israelis are ignoring the rules

Israel has the highest daily infections of any country in the world for three weeks running


Israel spent the first full week of its second Covid-19 lockdown bickering over whether synagogues on Yom Kippur and protests against the prime minister should be locked down as well. Meanwhile the number of new infections, hospitalisations and deaths from the pandemic continued to rise. And the lockdown was not particularly effective, either. 

On Wednesday, the fifth day of the lockdown, the number of new confirmed Covid-19 cases was already nudging seven thousand in 24 hours, making it three weeks running in which Israel has the highest daily infections of any country in the world. By the evening, the number of severe cases in Israeli hospitals was 632, climbing towards the 800 cases that the public health authorities have warned would be the “red-line” when the hospitals are overwhelmed. 

Defence Minister Benny Gantz instructed the IDF to set up a field hospital that would add 200 more beds for Covid-19 patients. But Professor Dror Mevorach, head of the Coronavirus ward at Hadassah hospital in Jerusalem, said that “the numbers are misleading, we can add the capacity of the IDF and make changes within the hospitals and the capacity could go as high as 1300 - but a higher number of ICU beds doesn’t mean we have more medical personnel. The quality of care, both for Covid patients and those suffering from other illnesses is already deteriorating.” 

But while hospitals were straining under the load, the cabinet spent most of Tuesday and Wednesday debating the relatively minor issues of whether synagogues would remain open on Yom Kippur and whether the protestors who have been crowding every Saturday night in Jerusalem, calling upon prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resign, would be allowed to continue protesting during the lockdown. 

Mr Netanyahu and his proxies have been arguing for weeks that the protests should be forbidden. But attorney-general Avichai Mendelblit ruled that the prime minister has a conflict of interest since the protests are against him, and allowed them to continue despite the lockdown. On Sunday night (a day later than usual because of Rosh Hashanah), a convoy of cars, flying black and blue-and-white flags, made its way up to Jerusalem, although some of the protest leaders had been in favour of calling them off until the lockdown is over. 

On Tuesday it transpired that the prime minister was so eager to bring the protests against him to an end that he was prepared to intensify the lockdown, shutting down all but essential services (currently businesses which aren’t open to customers are allowed to continue operating), even though the “Coronavirus Coordinator” Professor Roni Gamzu had agreed that the step was not crucial and would entail unnecessary damage to the economy. But the attorney-general and Mr Netanyahu’s coalition partners, Blue and White, had agreed to authorise a lockdown of protests only under a total lockdown, which would include gatherings in synagogues for prayer on Yom Kippur. As the angry cabinet deliberated, with Likud ministers demanding that the protests be shut down and their Blue and White colleagues insisting that this should happen only under a total lockdown, the prime minister was taking fire from his ultra-Orthodox allies as well. Shas leader and Interior Minister Arye Deri left the meeting (which was being held over Zoom) in anger when the closure of synagogues on Yom Kippur was brought up. Both Shas and United Torah Judaism have said they would withdraw from the coalition if such a step was taken. 

It is unclear what impact any government decision would even have. Over Rosh Hashanah thousands of synagogues remained closed as the lengthy prayers and shofar blowing were held in the open air, in gardens, empty lots and parks, with congregants keeping distance from each other and wearing face masks. 

But in many other synagogues, particularly in the ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods, prayers were held just like every year, without heed to the government’s guidelines of praying in small groups and with social distancing. In a proclamation made by the hardcore “Eda Haredit” in Jerusalem, rabbis urged their followers not to change anything and to “prepare for prayers as every year on the holy days.” Police did not enter the neighbourhoods to enforce the guidelines. Both sides in cabinet were grandstanding on behalf of their notional electorates. 

As evening fell on Wednesday, Mr Netanyahu left the cabinet meeting after failing to reach an agreement and instead recorded a video message to the nation. “The situation is difficult and we have to make difficult decisions,” he implored. “But as prime minister I am committed to protecting your lives.” 

Treasury experts had just warned him that a total lockdown that included the financial sector would cost Israel 35 billion shekels over the next fortnight until the end of Succot. But he argued that “in any case we are going towards a total lockdown” and so it would be better to begin it immediately, over Yom Kippur and Sukkot, when economic activity is lower. Finance Minister Yisrael Katz had been more honest during the cabinet meeting when he grumbled, “Isn’t there a way to shut down the protests without shutting down the economy?”

Two hours later, Mr Gantz capitulated and the prime minister got all he asked for. A heavier lockdown will be in place from Friday for the next two weeks. Banks, the airport and even synagogues will shut down, just not on Yom Kippur itself, and protests will be allowed only within a 1000-meter radius of the protestors’ homes and in groups no larger than twenty.

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