Israel re-imposes restrictions amid new surge in coronavirus cases
Israel on Monday re-imposed a series of restrictions to fight a spike in coronavirus infections, including the immediate closure of bars, gyms and event halls, while also redeploying a contentious phone surveillance programme used to order people into quarantine.
After largely containing the coronavirus in May and reopening schools, beaches and businesses, Israel has been hit by a sharp rise in infections. The country is now reporting around 1,000 new cases a day, higher than its peak during the previous wave.
In public remarks at a special cabinet session on the health crisis, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel had to reverse course to avoid a wider lockdown that could paralyse its economy, where unemployment is just above 20%. The Bank of Israel on Monday forecast a 6% economic contraction in 2020.
"The pandemic is spreading — that's as clear as day. It is rising steeply daily and it is dragging with it, contrary to what we had been told, a trail of critically ill patients," Netanyahu said.
Much anger and criticism in Israel as far stricter lockdown measures imposed amid coronavirus spike. Many saying lockdown initially imposed well, but the end of it came far too early and was badly managed says our correspondent @irris. #Israel #coronavirus #F24 pic.twitter.com/60YR7uJP1S
— Stuart Norval (@StuartNorval) July 7, 2020
A government announcement said that in addition to the immediate shuttering of bars, night clubs, gyms, event halls and cultural events, the number of diners in restaurants would be limited to 20 indoors and 30 outdoors.
Attendance at synagogues was capped at 19 worshippers, and buses can carry up to 20 passengers, the statement said.
With its contact tracing apparatus struggling to keep up with the mounting caseload, Israel last week redeployed a contentious phone surveillance programme piloted by the Shin Bet domestic security agency.
The agency's sophisticated phone surveillance technology, normally used to monitor Palestinian militants, is being used to track Israelis who have come in contact with infected people and then notify them that they must enter home quarantine.
Israel’s Health Ministry said Sunday that “many” messages had been sent to Israelis following the renewed involvement of the Shin Bet. The Israeli daily Haaretz reported that more than 30,000 people were notified they must enter quarantine since Thursday.
The scheme was used when the outbreak first emerged earlier this year, and when civil rights groups challenged it in the country's Supreme Court, the court threatened to halt its use unless it was put under legislative oversight. The Israeli Knesset has since done so twice using temporary legislation, most recently Wednesday.
While officials have defended the practice as a life-saving measure, civil rights groups attacked it as an assault on privacy rights.
Coronavirus in the Middle East: Lock down or play down?
Countries such as Kuwait and Israel have instituted virtual lockdowns in the face of COVID-19, while religious gatherings have been limited at a time of year ripe with ritual. Others have been slower to act. By Tom Allinson
Iran bearing the brunt: with a high number of deaths and cases, Iran has been a regional epicentre of the outbreak. Several top officials have been infected and there are concerns the number of cases are higher than reported. The government has cancelled Friday prayers but health workers have complained they are under-equipped. Iran has asked the International Monetary Fund for emergency funding
Strict measures in Saudi Arabia: Saudi authorities banned international religious pilgrims early on, leaving the Grand Mosque's Kaaba in Mecca virtually empty. Other measures have involved sanitizing streets and mosques, closing schools and universities, an extensive travel ban and fines of up to 500,000 riyals (€120,000/$133,000) for people hiding health details. It has also locked down the Shia-minority area of Qatif
Egypt restricts travel: in Cairo, hundreds of Egyptians tried to get certificates showing they have a clean bill of health after Saudi Arabia announced new travel regulations. Although Egypt has only detected a low number of cases, more than 100 tourists returning from the country tested positive for the virus. Officials have limited sermons to 15 minutes and cancelled large public gatherings
Israel and West Bank cut off from the world: gatherings of less than 100 are still allowed, leaving visits to the Wailing Wall open. But Israeli authorities have virtually halted air traffic in and out of its territory and tourists are required to self-quarantine. The city of Bethlehem has declared a state of emergency, emptying streets usually teeming ahead of Easter. Israeli researchers have said they are close to finding a COVID-19 cure
Virtual lockdown in Kuwait: as Kuwaitis kept their distance at this makeshift testing centre, the country entered a virtual lockdown, with the entire workforce given a two-week holiday from March 12. All commercial flights have been suspended from Friday on, schools have been closed and gatherings at restaurants, malls and commercial centres have been banned
In Iraq coronavirus fails to dampen protests: Iraq's protest movement has set up its own makeshift disinfection stations to counter the spread of COVID-19. Although Iraq is highly prone to the outbreak due to its proximity and close relations with Iran, protesters have been defiant, saying the government is the virus. Elsewhere authorities have closed major public spaces and religious institutions have cancelled gatherings
"A lesson to all countries"
Only 37% of Israelis trust the government's handling of the crisis, according to a survey published on Monday by N12 News, against 59% who distrust it.
Epidemiologist Hagai Levine said Israel did not prepare well for the day after lockdown.
"Israel's experience should be a lesson to all countries: You cannot move from one extreme to another, from total lockdown to a quick, sweeping removal of restrictions without proper planning," the professor at the Hebrew University-Hadasdah School of Public Health said.
"We have to act based on data and focus on high-risk populations, epicentres and specific activities in which contagion risk is high. The coronavirus will be with us for a long while. This is a marathon, not a sprint," Levine said.
In Israel, more than 30,000 have tested positive and 332 have died.
Palestinian officials in the occupied West Bank imposed a full lockdown on Friday as cases surged. Nearly 4,300 cases and 16 deaths have been reported in the West Bank, and 72 cases and one death in Gaza. (FRANCE 24/REUTERS/AP)