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As shopkeepers burn wares, PM says world talking of Israel’s lockdown success

Disagreements reported as ministers meet to decide on lockdown exit plan; Netanyahu hails tremendous achievements of closure, but small businesses say government has abandoned them

  • Business owners protest against the ongoing nationwide closure in Tel Aviv on October 15, 2020. (Flash90)
    Business owners protest against the ongoing nationwide closure in Tel Aviv on October 15, 2020. (Flash90)
  • Business owners protest against the ongoing nationwide closure in Tel Aviv on October 15, 2020. (Flash90)
    Business owners protest against the ongoing nationwide closure in Tel Aviv on October 15, 2020. (Flash90)
  • Business owners protest against the on going nationwide closure in Tel Aviv on October 15, 2020. (Flash90)
    Business owners protest against the on going nationwide closure in Tel Aviv on October 15, 2020. (Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Thursday Israel’s second national lockdown had so far been “a tremendous success” that was being followed closely by the international community.

While government ministers debated a gradual easing of the month-long closure, small business owners who have been financially devastated by the lockdown were holding an angry protest in Tel Aviv, throwing their merchandise into the street and setting fire to it.

Netanyahu, addressing the so-called coronavirus cabinet, said: “They’re starting to talk about this success in other countries, particularly in Europe, where morbidity has already overtaken us in several nations. They are now deliberating the same question we decided on — whether to enact a lockdown.”

He said the country was seeing “a clear and consistent decline in all the data.” But he said the reduction of lockdown limitations would need to be carried out carefully and responsibly to prevent a new surge in infections.

Yamina opposition party chairman Naftali Bennett tore into Netanyahu for characterizing the lockdown as a “success.”

“The second lockdown is not a ‘success,’ but rather thee result of the administrative failure of your government,” Bennett said in a statement. Yamina has shot up in recent polls from its current five seats in what has been seen as a damning indictment of the Netanyahu government’s handling of the pandemic.

Bennett in his statement added, “the first lockdown in April bought us time. I presented you a plan to prevent the second wave, but you did not prepare… you did not increase contact-tracing and testing. This lockdown imposes enormous suffering and loss of livelihood for millions of Israelis.”

Bennett wasn’t the only one turned off by Netanyahu’s characterization of the country’s second lockdown. “When Prime Minister Netanyahu called the closure a ‘tremendous success’ our stomachs churned,” one minister from the coronavirus cabinet told the Ynet news site on the condition of anonymity.

Health officials have stressed they would buck pressure to quickly reopen the economy.

The Tel Aviv business owners’ protest took place on Jaffa Street, home to many textile and clothing shops. “We have a collection of dresses that’s just going in the trash,” one business owner told Channel 12 news.

“Now the winter collection is coming, the money is gone, the workers are home, we have small kids at home, we have workers. The bank is calling for answers, what are we supposed to tell them? There’s nothing we can do with the merchandise.”

Ministers met amid reported disagreements as to how the government should proceed.

At issue was a Health Ministry plan for a gradual, months-long exit based on epidemiological benchmarks, as well as plans to immediately reopen preschools and some businesses, lift a restriction on travel, and plan for what to do with high-infection zones.

Some ministers were pushing for a swifter opening than the Health Ministry recommends, noting the economic damage and other ill effects of the nationwide closure.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a school in Jerusalem, ahead of the opening of the school year, August 25, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem/Pool/AFP)

According to Hebrew media reports, some got the impression during Thursday’s meeting that Netanyahu wanted to delay the reopening by several days beyond Sunday to be sure the decline in infections continues. Certain ministers objected and demanded that the eased measures go into effect Sunday.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri was reportedly pushing for allowing larger weddings to take place with up to 200 guests — a move strongly opposed by Netanyahu. Weddings, and all gatherings, are currently limited to 20 people outdoors, 10 indoors.

“It’ll lead to a terrible tragedy,” Netanyahu was quoted by the Ynet news site as responding to Deri.

Hebrew media reports said the prime minister specifically took issue with mass weddings in Arab communities, which were blamed for an uptick of virus cases last month in Arab-majority cities and towns.

An official representing the Arab community in the meeting also expressed his opposition to allowing large weddings, warning it would lead to a surge of infections.

Screen capture from video of Interior Minister Aryeh Deri denying that he had broken coronavirus lockdown travel restrictions on Yom Kippur, October 6, 2020. (Twitter)

“I represent the Jewish people,” Deri shot back at Netanyahu, according to the reports. His office later said the quote was “imprecise.”

“Minister Deri said he represents a broad public for whom this issue is important,” his office said. Deri is the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

Thursday’s protest came days after a Tel Aviv shoe store owner, bankrupted by two lockdowns, shut down his store for good on Monday and emptied his merchandise onto the sidewalk for passersby to scavenge through.

Video of the incident went viral, highlighting the struggles and pain of small business owners in Israel who have been hit by two coronavirus lockdowns in recent months and have received little assistance from the government.

“It’s all caused by mental and economic desperation,” said the shop’s Avi Samay, a 38-year-old father of three from the nearby city of Holon. “If I’m going to lose everything, at least others should benefit.”

“I’m going to hand over the keys and go look for a job like the other million unemployed,” he told the Ynet news site with tears in his eyes.

“Who am I going to sell to? No one is open,” he said gesturing to a long line of shuttered stores, many of them with For Rent signs. “It’s not just me, it’s all of us.”

Small business owners and self-employed people in Israel were among the worst affected by the first lockdown Israel imposed earlier this year to fend off the coronavirus pandemic, and they have been devastated again by the second lockdown, in force since September 18.

In addition to the crumbling businesses, nearly 975,000 salaried workers had been laid off or furloughed as of Thursday, the Employment Service said.

Israel has been under a national lockdown for the past month to contain a raging second wave of the pandemic, which at one point reached some 9,000 daily cases. Recent days have seen both the number of daily cases and the percentage of positive tests go down amid the sweeping restrictions on the public. The death toll is rising, however, crossing 2,000 on Sunday — just five weeks after it passed 1,000.

Health Ministry figures published Thursday morning showed 2,004 new cases were confirmed throughout Wednesday, just over the 2,000 mark below which authorities have determined that measures can start to be eased. However, the target number of 2,000 daily infections — along with a positive test rate of under eight percent and a basic reproduction number of less than 0.8 — must be met as a daily average for an entire week, and it wasn’t clear when exactly those criteria would be met.

Police at a temporary roadblock to enforce the national coronavirus lockdown on Highway 40, October 9, 2020 (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Ministers were discussing separate exit plans for cities with low and high infection rates. Shortly before the meeting, several cities were taken off the list of places with particularly high morbidity rates, where many restrictions are expected to remain in place while other parts of the country reopen.

Ofakim, Ramle, Netivot and Or Yehuda were removed, leaving on the list only places with significant ultra-Orthodox populations: Modiin Illit, Bnei Brak, Rechasim, Beitar Illit, Beit Shemesh, Kiryat Malachi and several Haredi-majority neighborhoods in Jerusalem.

Reports indicated that Finance Minister Israel Katz and the Blue and White party were demanding that small businesses that do not serve customers in person be okayed to open Sunday, along with allowing restaurants to resume takeout service.

Katz was pushing for localized restrictions in high infection areas and called for extra money to help businesses in those places.

Finance Minister Israel Katz holds a press conference at the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem on July 1, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Meanwhile, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, the leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, said he would try and increase the number of participants allowed at religious events such as weddings, funerals, circumcisions and bar and bat mitzvas. He was set to ask for a 200-person cap on weddings and a maximum of 2,000 at the Western Wall, divided into separate groups of 20.

On Sunday, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein called on the Finance Ministry to fund full compensation for businesses and workers who have lost income due to the lockdown.

People wearing face masks shop at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem on October 5, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

“As a government, we need to make sure that those business owners and people who lost a lot will get not just pocket money, but full compensation, in real-time, and I intend to fight for that,” Edelstein said.

Edelstein’s remarks came as an alliance of chains in apparel, commerce, and catering called upon retailers to disobey government coronavirus restrictions and urged businesses in cities with low infection rates to reopen on October 18.

The alliance, which represents 400 retail chains and over 18,000 stores mostly in malls and shopping centers nationwide, said in a Sunday statement that its call for civil disobedience was in response to “the drastic exit plan of the Health Ministry,” according to Hebrew language media.

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