Bnei Brak lockdown tightens, in bid to head off ‘much worse crisis’

Military officer coordinating effort says operation should concentrate on increased virus testing, not removing those at risk; public transportation into city cut off

An ultra-Orthodox man crosses a main deserted street in Bnei Brak on  April 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)
An ultra-Orthodox man crosses a main deserted street in Bnei Brak on April 2, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Authorities moved early Sunday to tighten a closure on the virus-stricken city of Bnei Brak, cutting off access between the city and the rest of the country and stepping up efforts to provide aid to residents and remove those carrying the potentially deadly pathogen.

At the same time, officials are reportedly considering similar measures for other cities that have seen major outbreaks of the disease, many of them with large ultra-Orthodox populations.

Starting early Sunday, police and military forces blocked access to Route 481, a main Tel Aviv metropolitan area artery that runs through the city of some 200,000.

The road, also known as Jabotinsky Street and normally one of the country’s most congested thoroughfares, was closed off between the Geha Interchange and Ben Gurion Junction in Ramat Gan.

Officials also announced that public transportation leading into or out of the city was being cut off, though some buses would continue to run inside the city. Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich said the move was ordered by National Security Adviser Meir Ben Shabbat.

Police set up temporary checkpoints at the entrance to the city of Bnei Brak, April 3, 2020 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

At Sheba Hospital in nearby Tel Hashomer, staff who live in Bnei Brak were told they could no longer commute back and forth between their home and the medical center, according to the Hebrew news reports.

The Tel Aviv suburb is seen as a major epicenter of the virus, with almost as many confirmed cases as Jerusalem, which has the largest tally according to Health Ministry data released last week, despite being one-fifth the size of the capital.

Thousands more people in the city are thought to possibly have the disease but remain untested.

Many ultra-Orthodox initially dismissed social distancing regulations, which officials say has led to the high rate of infection within their communities.

In this Thursday, April 2, 2020 file photo, Israeli police officers wearing protective gear wait to detain ultra-Orthodox men as they pray in a synagogue in Bnei Brak. ‏(AP/Ariel Schalit )

On Friday, police and army units began enforcing the lockdown over the city, restricting entry and exit and making sure people stayed at home for anything but essential needs.

They pulled back over Shabbat out of respect for the Jewish day of rest, while maintaining some patrols.

The lockdown effort is expected to include an operation to remove those who have the virus to specially outfitted hotels, and was originally slated to include transporting thousands of elderly to supervised facilities outside of the city.

Outgoing head of Central Command Roni Numa (L) speaks at his exchange of command ceremony in East Jerusalem on March 7, 2018 as IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot looks on. (Screen capture/Ynet)

However, Maj. Gen. (res.) Roni Numa, tasked with managing the response to the coronavirus crisis in the city, indicated that the Defense Ministry plan to evacuate the elderly would not be carried out.

“There are a lot of good ideas, but they are not actionable. If we remove all the elderly to a hotel, it will only take one of them being sick for us to get a full coronavirus hotel,” he told the Israel Hayom daily in an interview published Sunday.

Numa instead urged increased testing, indicating that he believed the number of infected to be many times higher than the approximately 1,000 reported to date.

“If [increased testing] does not happen, this will be a much worse crisis,” he said.

Officials believe Bnei Brak residents have been avoiding getting tested in order to not have to be isolated during the upcoming Passover holiday.

In this Thursday, April 2, 2020 file photo, a member of the Hevra Kadisha burial society pushes a body during a funeral of a Jewish man who died from coronavirus in the costal city of Ashkelon, Israel. (AP/Tsafrir Abayov)

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 head of the IDF Home Front Command, Maj. Gen. Tamir Yadai, said over the weekend that attempts to remove some of the ill to quarantine hotels were not going very well, 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.”

Numa also said soldiers would be unarmed in an effort to show residents that they were there to help.

Although Yadai had said only those most at risk would be given aid, Numa said that soldiers would be providing assistance to all of the city’s residents, and predicted the enforced lockdown would continue for several weeks at least.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews, some of them wearing mask, cross a street in Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv, on March 3, 2020 (Photo by JACK GUEZ / AFP)

On Friday, the government tasked the Israel Defense Forces with formally providing “civil assistance” to residents of Bnei Brak after the deputy mayor of the city complained about the “half-measure” and called the lockdown “a death trap for the city’s elderly.”

“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,” Gedalyahu Ben Shimon 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.

Police officers detain a man in Beit Shemesh while enforcing social distancing rules on March 31, 2020.
(Yaakov Lederman/Flash90)

Minister were slated to discuss the possibility of declaring other cities with large outbreaks restricted zones Saturday night, with an emphasis on locales with large ultra-Orthodox populations.

Among those cities were several with predominantly ultra-Orthodox populations, such as Elad and the West Bank settlement of Modiin Illit, as well as several Haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem and Beit Shemesh. Tiberias, Ashkelon and the city of Modiin were also being considered.

An IDF soldier at a temporary checkpoint in Jerusalem to check Israelis are not violating restrictions meant to contain the coronavirus, April 2, 2020. (Nati Shohat//Flash90)

The whole country has been under partial lockdown since last month, with people only allowed to venture further than 100 meters from their home for work or essential needs. Police last week began fining people who did not comply.

On Saturday night, the number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus rose above 7,800, including at least 43 fatalities.

Judah Ari Gross contributed to this report.

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