Israel toughens second lockdown as virus cases surge
Jerusalem (AFP) –
Israel toughened its coronavirus measures on Thursday as a second nationwide lockdown now nearing its second week failed to bring down the world's highest infection rate.
The new rules will close the vast majority of workplaces, shutter markets and further limit prayers and demonstrations.
"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 late Wednesday, at the start of a cabinet meeting to thrash out the new measures.
The government's latest move comes as the country 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.
Under the new measures set to be approved in parliament later 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.
"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 will be made later on Thursday, the government said.
Israel has the world's highest coronavirus infection rate as a proportion of its population, according to an AFP tally of the past fortnight.
More than 200,000 coronavirus cases have been recorded, with 1,335 deaths, out of a population of nine million.
Netanyahu has faced fierce criticism from opposition politicians, who accuse him of tightening the rules to put an end to weeks of protest outside his Jerusalem residence.
Ayelet Shaked, a lawmaker with the far-right Yamina party, said the new rules are "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 will push to change the measures when they come before a parliamentary committee for approval later on Thursday.
Israel's health ministry registered 6,808 new 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.
© 2020 AFP