Israel is to enter a two-week lockdown starting tomorrow until Simchat Torah.
News broke in the early hours of Thursday morning following a day of bitter debate by the coronavirus cabinet.
New regulations are expected to pass into law after passing through the Knesset today.
Less than a week ago Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a lockdown before the High Holydays, which hit schools, shopping centres, hotels and restaurants. Private sector and public sector work places remained open. The latest lockdown is far reaching across Israeli society and at the time of going to press not all conditions had been announced.
However, Israel is amongst the world’s highest coronavirus rates per capita. Action had to be taken after Health Ministry data reported a record 6,923 new cases yesterday as the deadly virus exponentially increases. The death toll has reached 1,285.
Netanyahu considered shutting Ben Gurion Airport and calling a state of emergency.
Ben Gurion will shut for departing flights under the latest proposals. Flight entering Israel can land, but allow with Israeli citizens.
Non essential shops and businesses will also shut. Public protests with specific measures can take place. But there are strict guidelines for families gathering.
It is unclear what will happen regarding Succot and the purchasing of arba minim and materials sukkahs.
Shuls can open in outdoor spaces up to 20 participants. Regarding Yom Kippur, a special dispensation allows shuls to operate with a minimum number of participants like Rosh Hashanah.
Corona Cabinet member, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, reportedly said, “We are in a state of terrible emergency. This is made clear by the fact that they are shutting down the economy again.
“Tefillah is the only permitted gathering that will be allowed, and that is due to its importance.”
He added, “We need to recall that on Pesach, we had 700 ill people per day and we davened on balconies. Now we have ten times that and we are able to daven outside in minyanim as long as we wear masks.”
Finance Minister Amir Peretz reportedly added, “Public confidence has been broken because every two days we make a different proposal. The decisions do not last more than two days. I propose to accept the outline prepared by the attorney-general, coronavirus commissioner and the director-general of the Health Ministry.”
An extraordinary few days saw Israel’s Chief Rabbi David Lau consider backing synagogue closures on Yom Kippur if the Health Ministry decides it’s the “right thing to do” and will “saves lives”.
Orthodox communities, including Lau, have consistently slammed attempts to close shuls or ban public prayers. Protesters have been particularly vocal about ignoring measures during the High Holy Days.
Debate has been intense, Lau told Netanyahu earlier this week that orthodox Jews would not obey guidelines until similar restrictions are enforced at other demonstrations in Israel.
Lau, in particular, was referring to protests outside the Israeli leader’s Balfour Street residence in Jerusalem. For months, protestors have called for Netanyahu’s resignation over corruption indictments and his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.
Many demonstrators do not to wear face masks or observe social distancing.
“The problem is that the public will not obey the rules if the closure is not total, and in other places there will be gatherings that will not be enforced,” Lau noted.
Rabbi David Yosef, Council of Sages of Shas and son of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, noted, “Immediately close the synagogues. Even on Yom Kippur services should only be held in the open air or in houses in units.”
Lau has long supported the orthodox viewpoint, but, with coronavirus cases approaching 7,000, despite a ‘nationwide’ lockdown coming into force before Rosh Hashonah, Lau intimated a turnaround yesterday.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is reported to be seeking a technical solution before Netanyahu can take the step. Police though are concerned due to complexities.
Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch accepts measures will shortly be increased as the pandemic grips society.
The coronavirus cabinet have deliberated restrictions with limited success this week.
Coronacirus czar Ronnie Gamzu proposed a closure of synagogues on Yom Kippur as part of the measures. Religious cabinet members including Netanyahu opposed the notion.
Discussions highlighted protests outside Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence where demonstrators have ignored regulations.
Netanyahu has been silent but this time lambasted protesters.
He explained, “For a long time, I refrained from speaking out about the demonstrations. But after hearing experts claim that these gatherings are a massive detriment to public health, it is my duty to comment. The entire public is required to follow the restrictions, and only this group of protesters is exempt.”
“You are only allowed to go to the (Western) Wall if you live 1,000 meters from there, but you can come to Balfour from all over the country,” Netanyahu added.
“There must be one rule for prayers, protests, and all gatherings wherever they are. If not, the public will not listen to the directives, and the disease will reach horrifying magnitudes.”
Minister of Interior Aryeh Deri, who heads up Ultra-Orthodox Shas, threatened to resign from the government if synagogues were closed on Yom Kippur.
But MK Ofer Shelah, Yesh Atid Party, backed Israel’s leader.
Israel’s coronavirus cabinet convened Tuesday to discuss tightening the lockdown. Closing outdoor markets, including for arba minim, was among numerous options debated.
Lau warned against closing shuls in a telephone call with Netanyahu, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, and National Security Council head Meir Ben-Shabbat the following day.
With Israel attempting to slow down Covid cases, Health Ministry Deputy Director-General Prof. Itamar Grotto called for a reduction in the infection rate from 12% to 7% before a lockdown can be lifted.
“We must consider the rate of infection and not the number of confirmed cases which is a result of the number of tests conducted,” he reportedly noted. “The R rate must be brought down to below 1, while we of course continue to monitor the number of seriously ill cases in hospitals.”
Grotto added that the government should operate according to Gamzu’s ‘traffic light’ program, with initially the country being considered a red zone and under strict mitigation directives.
“We plan to consider any changes only after two-week periods, and must not be swayed by political pressure,” Grotto continued.
“We are increasing the number of IDF troops assigned to this effort and will also be adding coronavirus wards to the country’s hospitals in preparation for winter and the flu season.”
Hospitals, meantime, have reported hitting capacity to treat Covid cases. Seriously ill patients have risen in recent days.
Edelstein and Gamzu noted that the medical system was struggling to cope.
“We are in an emergency situation,” Gamzu reportedly told Channel 12, who appealed to the public to wear masks and not gather in large numbers.
Senior medics in Israel have warned of staff shortages.
“The question is not the number of beds, but who is taking care of the patients,” Prof. Gil Fire, CEO, Tel Aviv Ichilov Hospital, reportedly said. “There is only a limited number of trained doctors who know how to treat serious patients.”
Hebrew University Prof. Yinon Ashkenazy pointed out that a minimal risk of catching the virus outdoors if social distancing was observed. Mask wearing was essential indoors.
Prof. Eran Segal of the Weizmann Institute of Science agreed with Ashkenazy. Both advise the government on the pandemic.
In related news, Defense Minister Benny Gantz has called on the IDF to begin preparations to open field hospitals as coronavirus wards for excess patients.
“The construction plan will be submitted to the Health Ministry and will be implemented solely in accordance with the urgent need of the health system,” Gantz’s office said in a statement on Monday.