Israel has closed all non-essential businesses, including open-air markets and limited prayer meetings after failing to bring down the highest Covid infection rate in the world.
‘Over the past two days, we’ve heard from experts that if we don’t take immediate and harsh measures, we’ll reach an abyss,’ Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said last night, at the start of a cabinet meeting to thrash out the new measures.
The government’s latest move comes as Israel is poised to enter the second week of a three-week lockdown imposed last Friday, which included the closure of schools and restrictions on work and leisure.
Israel has the world’s highest coronavirus infection rate as a proportion of its population, with more than 200,000 cases recorded and 1,335 deaths out of a population of nine million.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu imposed a new lockdown last week and has this week had to convene his Cabinet to discuss further measures which went before parliament today
The health ministry registered another 6,808 coronavirus cases on Wednesday, out of 54,364 tests processed.
Some hospitals have reached capacity and are having to turn people away, with some patients forced to wait for hours in ambulances, according to the emergency medical service Magen David Adom.
Under the new measures put forward by Cabinet on Thursday, synagogues will only be allowed to open on Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday which begins Sunday afternoon.
At other times, only outdoor prayer will be allowed with a maximum of 20 people attending. The same restrictions have been applied to demonstrations.
‘To save the lives of Israel’s citizens we need to impose a full lockdown now for two weeks,’ Netanyahu said.
The insular ultra-Orthodox community – among which infection rates have been high – is concerned about how the lockdown will affect religious practices, particularly during the Jewish High Holiday when family gatherings and religious meetings are more frequent
Shoppers, wearing protective masks due to the COVID-19 pandemic, walk at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on Thursday ahead of new restrictions for all non-essential businesses
‘This is also necessary for the economy. Whoever thinks we can work with a raging pandemic, with death and infections rising, without it affecting the economy, is wrong.’
A decision on whether to close Ben Gurion international airport outside Tel Aviv would be made later on Thursday, the government said.
Hagai Levine, chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians, said Netanyahu’s rush to ease the lockdown set in place during the first wave caused the current crisis.
‘Once the rates went lower, Prime Minister Netanyahu told the public to go and have a good time,’ said Levine, an epidemiologist who is part of the country’s anti-coronavirus taskforce.
‘This is a wrong concept. Dealing with the current pandemic is like a marathon, and in a marathon you need to keep pace all the time,’ he said.
Levine also accused Netanyahu of basing his pandemic decisions on ‘political’ rather than ‘professional reasoning’, which had a damaging effect.
‘When there is no plan, no logic, the public loses its trust,’ he said.
The health expert warned that allowing synagogues to open during Yom Kippur would cause the virus to spread on a large scale.
‘We are going to have massive destruction,’ he said.
Netanyahu has also faced fierce criticism from opposition politicians, who accuse him of tightening the rules to put an end to weeks of protests outside his Jerusalem residence.
Ayelet Shaked, a lawmaker with the far-right Yamina party, said the new rules were ‘destructive and unreasonable’.
‘Because of the demonstrations, they’re pushing hundreds of thousands of people to unemployment and crushing the economy,’ she said in a statement.
Shaked said she would push to change the measures when they come before a parliamentary committee for approval later on Thursday.