Cabinet to review contentious emergency virus bill Monday
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Cabinet to review contentious emergency virus bill Monday

So-called coronavirus law softened to remove police power to enter homes, give Knesset enhanced oversight, following public outcry

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz lead a weekly cabinet meeting, at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on June 7, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and Defense Minister Benny Gantz lead a weekly cabinet meeting, at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem on June 7, 2020. (Marc Israel Sellem)

A controversial bill that would introduce emergency regulations aimed at tackling the coronavirus pandemic will be reviewed this week by top ministers, the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement on Sunday.

The bill has been denounced by critics as giving the state sweeping powers that would infringe on personal rights, with little oversight.

The Coronavirus Law will be discussed by the so-called coronavirus cabinet, a forum composed of relevant ministers tasked with combating the outbreak, on Monday.

After the cabinet review, the bill will be passed on to the Ministerial Committee on Legislation, where it is expected to receive government backing before making its way through the Knesset.

The bill is a softened version of previously proposed legislation that drew widespread outrage for giving police the right to enter homes with no warrant, and awarding some other powers to the government to suspend normal regulations in an emergency.

The measure allowing police ingress into private homes is missing from the new version, which aims to formalize the cluster of emergency regulations that were applied during a coronavirus lockdown that began in mid-March and was gradually lifted from the end of April.

Among other measures, the bill allows for declaring a health emergency for 30 days, though the Knesset will be able to cancel that state of emergency at any time.

It also empowers the government to apply lockdowns and order people into quarantine, as well as giving police the power to disperse public gatherings under the threat of fines or even prison sentences, though the right to demonstrate is preserved.

Social distancing in public places can also be enforced and businesses that do not heed orders can be closed down. Neighborhoods and communities can be declared a restricted zone for up to one week, unless the relevant Knesset committee approves an extension.

Any regulations introduced as emergency measures by using the law will need Knesset approval within a week. Under the terms of the bill, the government commits that when applying emergency orders it will take into consideration those with special needs.

Activists block a road during a protest against the emergency Coronavirus Law, outside the Foreign Ministry building in Jerusalem on June 7, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As the cabinet gathered for its weekly meeting Sunday in the Foreign Ministry building in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that a “serious slackening in keeping the rules,” which are aimed at preventing the spread of the coronavirus, was what was making the emergency law necessary.

Netanyahu said the law was “aimed at balancing the need to take swift action to stop the epidemic and the need to safeguard the individual rights that are precious to us all.”

But even as he spoke, a small demonstration was held outside by those protesting against the bill and the powers it grants.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Friday said, “Hundreds of complaints were received on the proposal, and we have already started to discuss them and clarify them.”

Channel 12 reported that the public registered some 15,000 official complaints over the earlier version of law.

According to a draft memorandum of the bill reported at the beginning of last week, the government was to be given special powers to deal with the coronavirus for 45 days, with the Knesset able to extend the emergency period every 30 days for up to 10 months.

Included in that draft was the ability to restrict visits to private homes, permission for police to enter homes without a warrant and use force to enforce regulations, and, crucially, power for the government to decide upon new measures without Knesset approval. According to the bill, the minister in charge of administering the law would be the prime minister himself.

Opposition leader Yair Lapid said the government was trying to “sweep the measures through below the radar.”

Israelis protest against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the so-called Coronavirus Law in Tel Aviv, June 4, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Following widespread public criticism of the coronavirus bill, Netanyahu said Monday that the government would not grant police officers the right to enter and search homes without a warrant as part of the legislative package.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz similarly said Monday that the government would ensure that individual liberties were protected, and also vowed to soften certain parts of the proposed legislation.

On Thursday night, hundreds of people demonstrated in Tel Aviv against the bill, accusing Netanyahu of using the pandemic to advance legislation for his own political interests.

Police forcibly broke up the rally later that night, arresting 12 demonstrators. The protesters who were arrested had blocked traffic, attacked bystanders and police, and damaged property, the police said.

After a sustained drop in the daily infection rate, Israel has seen a jump in new COVID-19 cases in recent weeks, with health officials attributing much of the rise to a spread in schools.

The jump in new cases came after the daily infection rate steadily dropped through much of May, with Israel easing restrictions on movement, economic activity and gatherings that were put in place to contain the virus.

The government said last week it would leave most schools open but use targeted closures anywhere a coronavirus case is found. Though classes resumed last month after a two-month closure, students and teachers are required to wear face masks and are supposed to keep to strict hygiene practices.

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