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Israel sends army to ultra-Orthodox city over coronavirus

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Jerusalem (AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday gave the green light for soldiers to be deployed in a mostly ultra-Orthodox Jewish city seen as the centre of Israel's novel coronavirus outbreak.

"In light of the special situation in Bnei Brak following the restrictions due to the coronavirus, the IDF (army) will immediately present the necessary civil assistance to Bnei Brak municipality in fulfilling its responsibilities," Netanyahu's office said after talks with security and health officials.

Authorities have enforced restrictions on access to Bnei Brak, a majority ultra-Orthodox city near Tel Aviv that is home to around 200,000 people.

More than 7,000 cases of COVID-19, including 36 deaths, have been officially declared in Israel.

According to local media, half of those infected are ultra-Orthodox Jews, a community which represents only around 10 percent of the Israeli population.

Many ultra-Orthodox Jews have refused to comply with confinement measures and social distancing.

This week has seen tense exchanges as police stepped up patrols of ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods that have become virus hot spots.

Army spokesman Jonathan Conricus said the military would deploy 800-1,000 soldiers in Bnei Brak to "assist" local authorities "because of the severity of the situation there and because of the relative lack of implementation of health ministry instructions".

Soldiers will help distribute food and medicine and assist with the evacuation of people with virus symptoms, Conricus told an online conference call with reporters.

He said the army would also seek to ensure health messages were reaching the ultra-Orthodox community.

Motti Ravid, director of Mayanei Yeshua hospital in Bnei Brak, told AFP earlier this week that with internet and television prohibited in the ultra-Orthodox community on religious grounds, government directives took a long time to filter through.

Even for those using mobile phones, access to the internet and most message services is blocked, shutting them off from the main form of communication used by the health ministry.

Conricus said soldiers would wear orange and most of them would not carry weapons.

He said he anticipated there would be misunderstandings and frustrations among the community, but "we are taking that into consideration".

Netanyahu himself re-entered precautionary quarantine this week after Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, a leading member of the ultra-Orthodox community, tested positive for COVID-19.

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