The deputy mayor of Bnei Brak on Friday called the decision to close off his city “a death trap for the city’s elderly” and urged the governments to consider other ways to stop the spread of coronavirus.
His call came as the government tasked the Israel Defense Forces with formally providing “civil assistance” to residents of Bnei Brak, a major hotspot of the virus, as police established checkpoints at the entrances and exits of the ultra-Orthodox city on the outskirts of Tel Aviv.
Gedalyahu Ben Shimon said the lockdown has caused uncertainty, leading “many city residents to flood a limited number of supermarkets, thus increasing the danger of infection.”
“As opposed to a curfew, where the army takes full responsibility for the hundreds of thousands of residents and provides them with food and medicine, here they’ve taken a half-measure that raises the odds of contagion and could cost human lives. A course correction is required,” he said.
The head of the IDF Home Front Command, Maj. Gen. Tamir Yadai confirmed that the army would only be supplying necessities to the most at-risk people.
Yadai stressed that while the city is effectively cut off, life within Bnei Brak is allowed to continue under the same restrictions as exist in the rest of the country, so people are still allowed to shop for food and other necessities. This means that while soldiers are delivering food and medicine to at-risk residents, they do not need to supply food to the entire population of roughly 200,000 people.
Most of the army effort would focus on helping evacuate the sick and elderly from the city, he said, adding, “No one will be evacuated by force, only voluntarily.”
The effort was being coordinated with the Bnei Brak municipality — specifically the head of the city’s coronavirus task force, Maj. Gen. (res.) Roni Numa — with the Magen David Adom ambulance service, Health Ministry, Israel Police and other government offices, he said.
During the closure, aid services and providers of essential supplies will be allowed in, as well as journalists. The closure will initially last for seven days, with the option to be extended by ministers by five days at a time.
With its population of 200,000, Bnei Brak has seen the second-highest number of infections of all Israeli cities in total numbers, and the highest rate by far per capita.
On Friday, the Health Ministry said there were 966 virus cases in Bnei Brak, 418 of which were confirmed in the past three days.
The isolation hotels, run by the Home Front Command, were being adapted to fit the lifestyles of the Haredi residents.
However, attempts to remove some of the ill to quarantine hotels were not going very well, Yadai conceded, noting that some families have eight or 10 children that need to be cared for. “The efforts are ongoing but it’s not a rousing success so far,” he said.
However, he reaffirmed that the IDF won’t use force on Bnei Brak residents.
“We won’t arrest people,” he told reporters. “We won’t do anything with force… I hope we get all the sick out of Bnei Brak.”
Yadai said some 100 people have already been evacuated to quarantine facilities, but that it was not immediately clear if this effort would be kept limited or would expand to remove thousands of ill and at-risk residents from the city.
The Home Front Command chief said troops would also help perform additional coronavirus tests in Bnei Brak to better map the outbreak.
Yadai said the military anticipated being sent to additional parts of the country that were struggling with the pandemic, noting the towns of Elad, Migdal Ha’Emek and parts of Jerusalem were possible locations.
Police have continued to operate and try and enforce the social distancing guidelines, with some members of the ultra-Orthodox community continuing to resist bans on communal prayer.
Police said they detained and issued fines to 15 men in the ultra-Orthodox settlement of Modi’in Illit who were holding a prayer service inside of a synagogue in violation of the government’s coronavirus guidelines.
Police said they were tipped off to the illegal service by residents of the settlement who disapproved of their neighbors’ willingness to endanger the entire community.
In the northern Haredi town of Rechasim, police officers dressed up in ultra-Orthodox garb in order to infiltrate an illegal prayer service.
The operational decision was made after weeks of seeking to cooperate with residents through less invasive means that proved insufficient as the locals had people on look-out whenever officers arrived to check for illegal prayer services, police said.
After identifying themselves as law enforcement during a prayer service this morning, two undercover officers handed out fines to a handful of worshippers for participating in a communal service.
However, after the officers left the premises, the worshipers returned and restarted the service. Police identified the violation and handed out fines totaling in NIS 17,500 ($4,806) to those present before closing the synagogue once again.
In Lod police also broke up a mass prayer service with some participants telling officers they were praying for salvation from the virus, Israel Radio reported, adding that police did not hand out fines, fearing riots.