Death of a thousand cases: 5 things to know for July 6
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Israel media review

Death of a thousand cases: 5 things to know for July 6

Ministers mull new restrictions amid prophecies of virus doom and gloom, and handwringing over how badly country screwed up its return to normal and is still messing up tracking

Health care workers take test samples of Israelis to check if they have been infected with the coronavirus, at a Clalit health center in Lod, on July 5, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/FLASH90)
Health care workers take test samples of Israelis to check if they have been infected with the coronavirus, at a Clalit health center in Lod, on July 5, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/FLASH90)

1. Lock or pop: Israel is heading for a somewhat tighter lockdown, according to press reports, with the country continuing to see relatively high coronavirus case numbers, as it comes to the realization that its policy of fully relying on sending out oodles of cops to fine and sometimes rough up people not wearing masks outside may not be enough to stop the spread of the virus.

  • Channel 12 news reports that ministers are holding a “dramatic” meeting on possibly locking down “many sectors and activities that had already reopened.” On the chopping block, according to the report: cultural halls, synagogues and yeshivas, gyms, clubs and bars, and gatherings in parks.
  • The Ynet news site reports that restaurants may be limited to 20 patrons inside and 30 outside, and the National Security Council is expected to recommend limiting ridership on buses to 20 people.
  • Kan quotes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu telling ministers that Israel is “a step away from a full lockdown,” and warning that Israel could see 1,000 serious cases in the coming weeks.
  • Speaking to Channel 12 news, Prof. Eli Waxman, a physicist who heads the panel of experts advising the National Security Council’s deliberations on combating the pandemic and who has become the media’s prophet of doom du jour, says that Israel has “lost control of the pandemic.”
  • In Yedioth, Prof. Doron Gazit writes that Israel needs to further limit gatherings inside and actually enforce existing guidelines, “or it won’t be able to avoid the need for stricter policies, or even a lockdown.”
  • The meeting comes just a few days after ministers held another “fateful meeting,” where they decided to limit gatherings to 50 people at event halls, bars, clubs and synagogues, and to 20 people at other venues. What ministers thought would change between then and now is frustratingly unclear.
  • Walla news reports that such meetings may soon be even more fateful, with the Knesset rushing through legislation “that will shrink the Knesset’s oversight of decisions around restrictions in public spaces.” According to the report, the law will allow the government to change rules regarding limits on gatherings without seeking a Knesset okay.

2. God worshipers versus sun worshipers: While news items over the weekend mentioned beaches specifically as a possible target for closure, the Ynet news site reports that “for now at least, there is no intention to close beaches, though there’s a possibility that hours will be limited.”

  • Though the Health Ministry releases a chart that lists beaches as one of the least dangerous places to be, in Israel Hayom epidemiologist prof. Galia Rahav appears to support some sort of limits on sun-worshipers and wave-catchers, or at least masks on them.
  • “If they are next to each other as I see in the pictures, it’s not okay,” she tells the tabloid.
  • A recent article in the Atlantic noted that though beaches are seemingly among the safest places one can be (wide open, outdoors), the optics have made them an object of ire: “The beach shaming is especially terrible because, so many months in, we now know that the virus spreads most readily indoors, especially in unventilated, crowded spaces, and even more so in such spaces where people are talking or singing without masks. … Who are you going to believe, your lying eyes or people who’d like us to get mad at others who dare enjoy life for a day outdoors, which epidemiologists overwhelmingly agree is safer than many other activities,” writes Zeynep Tufekci.
  • That idea dovetails with reports that during the latest fateful coronavirus restrictions meeting, late last week, Interior Minister Aryeh Deri demanded that beaches be closed because of how it would look if wedding halls were shut but people could still frolic in the surf.
  • Deri also bragged at the time that he had made sure that 50 people could still pack into synagogues, and not the 20 that health experts recommended, though pretty much everybody agrees that synagogues are a main infection problem spot.
  • According to Kan, synagogues won’t be shut now either, but will be limited to 19 attendees, thanks to Deri agreeing to compromise.
  • Channel 13 news (or what’s left of it, after a slew of firings) reports that in Bnei Brak, residents are continuing to take the virus seriously, and many are refusing to enter re-opened synagogues, instead holding prayer quorums in parks.
  • Concerns over the city, which remains a major hotspot, are growing again amid reports of a massive outbreak at a yeshiva there. The channel reports that yeshiva students are quarantining by sticking together in the yeshiva, though they are exposing those there that have not contracted the virus.
  • UTJ MK Moshe Gafni tells Hebrew media that his party will exit the government if it dares shut the men’s seminaries.
  • The ultra-Orthodox Kikar Hashabbat website, which had been widely supportive of virus regulations, quotes Rabbi Isaac Koldetsky describing the situation of students who are unable to return to yeshivas (which are set to close soon for summer break anyway) in medical terms, as in “critical condition,” without being able to study ancient texts.

3. What went wrong (besides everything): Kan reports that Eli Waxman and Finance Minister Israel Katz got into it at a government meeting, with Katz warning that closing too much “will kill the economy,” and Waxman shooting back that if they don’t “we’ll have Italy here.”

  • Italy might not be so bad, actually at this point, with the country managing to open up without seeing a major spike like Israel has. Channel 13’s Nadav Eyal asks why Europe is seeming to have an easier time of it, and surmises that it’s likely because “their government rolled back restrictions slowly and gradually, unlike Israel. There they did not quickly reopen schools. And Europe has a system for tracing infections.”
  • ToI’s Nathan Jeffay reports that experts have pinpointed three things — opening too quick, reopening schools and fudging testing — as the main culprits for why Israel is sliding back into chaos.
  • The intensity of the second wave has largely been caused by “management issues,” says health expert Gabi Barbash, who adds that Israel “should have responded more and earlier.”
  • Haaretz’s Ido Efrati identifies those and more reasons that Israel is falling behind, from a lack of public trust to a mistaken strategy based on identifying major infection zones.
  • “Because the outbreak has spread so widely over the last week, containing it by isolating ‘red zones’ is no longer possible. That’s also why the ministry has retreated from its demand to reinstate lockdowns in dozens of communities,” he writes.

4. On the wrong track: There are also questions about Israel’s contact tracing program and the Shin Bet’s use of phone tracking, which is reportedly causing a host of problems.

  • According to Channel 12 news, thousands of people have been told they must quarantine, even though they insist they were not where the phone tracker technology says they were. According to the report, the technology can’t tell if someone is actually next to a carrier, or even if there is a solid wall between them.
  • A hotline for appeals is woefully understaffed, and many people cannot get through, according to the report.
  • “They sent me a message that I have to go into isolation because on June 28 between 2 and 3 p.m. I was near a confirmed coronavirus carrier. But I was home at the time,” kindergarten teacher Mazal Shai tells the station, adding that she lost five days of pay because of the mistake.
  • A lead editorial in Haaretz lambastes the Shin Bet program and urges it be shut down: “To cover up their failures, Netanyahu and his government are seeking shortcuts by employing controversial tactics. Israel has been revealed in all its civic nakedness, and for lack of other options, it is asking the security services to solve its problems for it. Yet not only has the state given the Shin Bet legal access to the cellphones of all its citizens and allowed it to employ the same tools it uses to fight our enemies, but it turns out these tools are being used to send ‘innocent’ people into quarantine.”
  • Army Radio reports on an even more bizarre case in which a man received a phone call from police telling him he has been confirmed as a coronavirus carrier and must isolate. The problem: He never even got tested for the virus, but nobody seems to want to take responsibility for sorting out the mess. “I have a paper from a doctor saying I was never tested, but from the police’s point of view, I am a confirmed carrier,” he says.
  • Meanwhile, reporter Nir Gontarz writes on Twitter that when he attempted to look into a tip that quarantining police minister Amir Ohana was having guests over, he was given the runaround in the lobby of the apartment building so decided to leave. But shortly after, he was chased down by a cop, who detained him and demanded that he show his press card. When he refused, as he is legally allowed to do, the cop threatened to have him prosecuted for “impersonating a journalist,” a made-up crime.

5. Muckraked over the coals: Nobody is accusing Barak Ravid of impersonating a journalist, as Channel 13’s decision to rid itself of the correspondent, who is widely considered the country’s best connected and most dogged diplomatic reporter, invites outpourings of support and questions about the channel’s motives.

  • Ravid, who also writes for US publication Axios, is widely seen as the doyen of the diplomatic press corps in Israel, making the decision to fire him something akin to a team releasing Lebron James in his prime (and with annexation looming, we can make it releasing Lebron during the playoffs). The channel has fired dozens of journalists lately, but Ravid gets the most attention.
  • Consul to New York Dani Dayan calls Ravid on Twitter “the best political reporter in Israel (and also sometimes, the most annoying),” and says his firing is a “stain on the management of Channel 13.”
  • The AP reports that “a person familiar with the situation at Channel 13 said Ravid’s dismissal letter cited him for having poor ‘professional results.’”
  • “Ravid has gained a reputation for breaking stories about Israel’s relations with the US, the European Union and other foreign partners. His reporting has upset Netanyahu at times, and the prime minister has publicly rebuked Ravid in the past,” notes the report.
  • The New York Times David Halbfinger writes on Twitter that Ravid is “hands-down Israel’s biggest working scoop hound, but no fan of Bibi’s.”
  • On Twitter, Haaretz’s Noa Landau, who took over her beat from Ravid years ago, says that the decision has the “scent of a political assassination.”
  • The paper reports that “journalists and politicians hinted that the firing was driven by political considerations.”
  • Even Israel Hayom’s Ariel Kahana comes to Ravid’s defense, calling him a “professional writer who leaves other diplomatic reporters, myself included, in the dust.”
  • The tweet sparks a mini dust-up with Yair Netanyahu, the son of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who appeared to be about the only person praising the firing, and which does little to dispel the feeling that it may be a political hit job. (Not to mention the poor optics of gloating about somebody losing work in this economy.)

5. Natanz hot dogging: The press is also paying close attention to Iran and speculation that a series of blasts there could be tied to an Israeli sabotage campaign, and pundits, some of whom take their cues from Israeli defense officials, are pretty much publicly boasting about the operation.

  • The New York Times cites a Middle East intelligence figure who says that Israel was behind a recent blast at the Natanz nuclear facility, though is not behind other recent mysterious “accidents” at sensitive sites.
  • The paper also quotes a member of the IRGC saying a bomb was used in the blast, a day after an Iranian official publicly said that Tehran knew what caused the damage there, but refused to divulge it for nationals security reasons.
  • “Though there was no way to verify its involvement independently, Israel’s intelligence network has shown its ability to strike in the heart of Iran, breaking into a warehouse in Tehran in 2018 and stealing half a ton of secret records documenting Iran’s nuclear project and spiriting them out of the country,” the paper reports.
  • Former defense minister Avigdor Liberman hints to Army Radio that the leaker is none other than Yossi Cohen, whom he surmises is trying to steal Netanyahu’s thunder so he can take over Likud.
  • “An intelligence official says that Israel is responsible for an explosion in Iran on Thursday. The country’s entire security echelon knows who it is. I expect the prime minister to shut [the leaker’s] mouth, especially since he has started his Likud primary campaign,” he says.
  • Channel 12 news notes that Iran’s delayed admission that the damage at Natanz did set its program back “shows that the attempt to deny what happened, to repress and paper it over, did not work because of the extent of the damage.”
  • Haaretz’s Amos Harel calls the blast “ a direct hit on Iran’s nuclear program,” noting that the other incidents mostly seem unconnected. “It can be assumed that the Natanz attack had a dual purpose: first, to send Tehran the message that there is a cost to its conduct, which includes not only the nuclear advances but also the manufacture of long-range missiles and aid to terror organizations in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq; and second, on the practical level, to disrupt Iran’s renewed progress toward a nuclear bomb,” he writes.
  • “Even before all the details surrounding the alleged sabotage have emerged, it appears safe to conclude this was the worst setback to Iran’s nuclear program since its centrifuges were incapacitated in 2010 at the same site at Natanz,” writes Yoav Limor in Israel Hayom. “The latest blow doesn’t just disrupt Iran’s plan to put … advanced centrifuges to work. It also reveals to the world – yet again – the scope of Iran’s investment in its nuclear program as its economy buckles under US sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic, and its policies on these fronts are being met with increasing internal criticism.”
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