Israel reimposes restrictions amid new surge in coronavirus cases

Israel on Monday reimposed 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.

A masked bartender pictured on July 6 in Ashdod, Isreal, where authorities have ordered the immediate shuttering of bars and other social venues amid a spike in infections.
A masked bartender pictured on July 6 in Ashdod, Isreal, where authorities have ordered the immediate shuttering of bars and other social venues amid a spike in infections. © Amir Cohen, REUTERS

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.

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.

Surveillance technology

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. 

'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.


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