Diseased and confused: 6 things to know for March 22
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Israel media review

Diseased and confused: 6 things to know for March 22

COVID-19 guidelines approved by ministers don’t actually go into effect for 48 hours, baffling media while allowing locals and law enforcement to interpret them for themselves

Jacob Magid is the settlements correspondent for The Times of Israel.

A photojournalist wears face mask and gloves for fear of the coronavirus at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem on March 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
A photojournalist wears face mask and gloves for fear of the coronavirus at the Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem on March 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

1. Confusion’s in the air: With the weekend bringing warm weather to some of the country, at least, many Israelis used the opportunity to take walks in the park, on the boardwalk and through the plaza, under the impression that such exercise did not violate the Health Ministry guidelines authorized on Friday by the cabinet.

  • The scenes sparked the ire of Health Ministry director Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, who took to Twitter to scold the country and order everyone to get back inside.
  • Channel 13 broadcasts footage of police cars driving though Tel Aviv’s Yarkon park, with megaphone-employing officers ordering revelers to scatter.
  • “When the police send a patrol boat to order 2 surfers out of the water or when cops approach someone sitting alone on a bench or a couple running together and tell them to go home (all of these are examples of what has happened today), this is a very expansive interpretation of the emergency regulations. Crowds need to be dispersed, but police shouldn’t be bothering people for no reason,” writes Channel 13’s Barak Ravid.
  • The Kan public broadcaster reports various levels of confusion among members of the public as to what exactly is and is not allowed. For instance, until Friday guidelines allowed sports activities in groups of up to five people, but this was then lowered to two people — a change that the Health Ministry did not publicize. In addition, no time limit has been given for sports activities, as opposed to the 10-minute limit for strolls with children or pets. One older individual interviewed by the network says that for him, a walk is considered exercise, but that Tel Aviv police had told him to return home.
  • Haaretz’s Noa Landau points out that much of the problem has to do with a lack of basic transparency from the government, which does not even publish the decisions it makes. “I am often asked, even from my own editors, if I can send the ‘full notice’ of a recent government decision, but people must understand: There are almost no announcements about what is happening in the Israeli government. Nothing. They rarely report to the public what has been said or decided. Nothing. Journalists must look by flashlight for dramatic cabinet decisions and orders as if they’re a secret,” she tweets.
  • Part of the confusion might have to do with the fact the different government offices don’t appear to be getting along very well with one another. The tiffs between the Health Ministry and the Finance Ministry, with the latter warning that the former’s restrictions will bring about a collapse of the economy, have been widely reported. But the Kan public broadcaster adds that officials in the Health Ministry are also fuming at what they see as Defense Minister Naftali Bennett’s efforts to take control of their handling of the crisis. Indeed, Bennett has been issuing his own Facebook Live sessions for the past week where he has sought to explain the dangers of the virus to Israelis, detailing what his ministry is doing to help, while chiding the Health Ministry for not carrying out enough tests.

2. Rule of whim: On Friday, all news outlets reported that the cabinet had approved the new Health Ministry restrictions, which allowed law enforcement to pursue legal action against violators. One would have assumed that this meant that the measures had gone into effect. But in reality, this was not the case until today, as the Health Ministry and police took their time in detailing all of the guidelines.

  • Channel 12 reports that this did not stop police from handing out fines to 17 people. Whether these charges will stand up in court is another question.
  • On Friday, all news outlets reported that the cabinet had approved the new Health Ministry restrictions, which allowed law enforcement to pursue legal action against violators. One would have assumed that this meant that the measures had gone into effect. But in reality, this was not the case until today, as the Health Ministry and police took their time in detailing all of the guidelines.
  • Haaretz reports that police had initially briefed reporters saying that an exception to the 10-person limit on gatherings would be made for prayer services where 20 people would be allowed, which they promptly reported. But when the guidelines were finally published, the exception was changed to only weddings and funerals that take place outside.
  • The paper’s Josh Breiner points out that in the fine print of the guidelines, the police do not have the authority to fine individuals who violate the restrictions by leaving their homes for nonessential reasons. “So essentially we’re exactly where we were a week ago before the government announced that it was going to be issuing fines,” he writes.
  • After the PMO issued a statement saying that open-air markets such as the Carmel Market in Tel Aviv and Mahane Yehuda in Jerusalem are to remain open for the time being, footage on social media shows police ordering both of those places closed down.
  • A government official tells Channel 12 that he recognizes that a majority of Israelis are indeed keeping with the guidelines and that there is no problem with people going out for a jog or a stroll, but where Siman-Tov and others took issue was the scenes at Tel Aviv’s Yarkon Park where groups of children were seen playing with one another as if it were any other Saturday.
  • When pressed as to what the big deal was with people leaving their homes, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tells Channel 12 that many people were not keeping the “spirit” of the guidelines and warned that if greater precaution is not exercised, the government will be forced to go toward a full lockdown.

3. Ain’t gonna test on Saturday: Yedioth Ahronoth leads its front page with the headline “Labs are closed,” doubling down on its earlier report that ultra-Orthodox Health Minister Yaakov Litzman ordered that testing facilities not operate over the Sabbath.

  • Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman expresses outrage, telling Channel 12 that to delay testing “in an emergency situation like this is absolute insanity.”
  • Yedioth says that out of the 21 laboratories that are able to test samples taken from patients suspected of having the virus, only 11 were operating on the Sabbath. The Biochemists Union tells the paper that they have not been instructed to enter emergency protocol.
  • Army Radio delves into why many Israelis have had to wait a week or even longer to receive the results of their tests. Correspondent Eliav Batito speaks to a senior official at the Clalit health-service provider who admits that his company has accidentally misplaced many of the tests it has received.
  • Addressing the reports on testing slowdowns, Sigal Sadetzki, head of public health at the Health Ministry, tells Channel 12 the facilities that did not operate on the weekend had only been set up a day before and therefore were not yet sufficiently staffed to work through the Sabbath. As for why these labs had to wait until Sunday to receive the necessary manpower, Sadetzki did not elaborate.
  • Litzman had to wait until the end of the Sabbath to issue a statement, but did not waste a moment after nightfall to clarify that reports of a directive from his office ordering labs to shutter for the weekend were “fake news!”

4. Grieving from afar: The weekend also saw the country’s first casualty due to the coronavirus: 88-year-old Holocaust survivor Aryeh Even. His death and funeral sparked conversations in the media about dealing with loss during an era of social-distancing.

  • The funeral service at the Givat Shaul cemetery was capped at 20 mourners, and all were required to stand at a two-meter (6.5 ft) distance from one another, according to Channel 12.
  • In a statement to the press announcing his passing on Friday night, Even’s family said, “he was a dear and beloved man, living a full life, devoted to his family, a strong man until the end. We are sorry to have passed his last days and moments at a time when his family members were prevented from being by his side.”
  • One of his grandchildren tells Channel 12 that while she understands the restrictions barring her from being with her grandfather on his deathbed, she thinks that the Health Ministry could do more to help grieving families, possibly allowing them to video-chat with their loved ones even if they’re unconscious so they can at least hear their voice over the phone.
  • One administrator at the Nofim Tower assisted living facility where Even lived tells the Walla news site that he is extremely worried not just about other residents contracting the virus (9 already have), but also about residents in early and later stages of dementia, whose conditions will likely deteriorate rapidly if they are barred from human contact for an extended period of time.

5. Grab a life jacket: Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, Netanyahu has been breaking his rule of not giving interviews unless it’s election season, but last night he went a step further and even showed up at the Channel 12 and 13 studios to field admittedly tough questions from reporters on his government’s handling of the crisis.

  • Pressed by Channel 13 on the shortage of protective gear for medical staff, Netanyahu points out that this is a problem that countries worldwide are dealing with and is not unique to Israel. He does not elaborate on efforts to deal with the shortage, but he told Channel 12 earlier that Israel was both manufacturing equipment and obtaining it from overseas.
  • The premier then makes a bit of a gaffe when he tells Channel 13,  “I’m navigating the Titanic. I’m standing on the deck,” in a line not likely to assuage Israelis who have seen the end of that movie
  • Netanyahu also uses the primetime opportunity to reach out to Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz, calling on his bitter rival to join him in an emergency unity government. Both networks press the prime minister if he’d like to take the opportunity to apologize to Gantz for the very personal attacks he and his party made against him before and during the campaign. Netanyahu argues that Blue and White went low in its ads as well and that instead it would be best if the sides saved the apologies and simply put their differences aside.
  • Both channels also chide the premier for his branding of the entire Joint List as “terror supporters,” with Dana Weiss reminding Netanyahu that many of the people who voted for “those terror supporters” are in the frontlines of the fight against the virus serving as doctors and nurses in hospitals across the country. The Likud leader stands by the remark, saying that he differentiates between the Arab public and the elected representatives that the vast majority of them voted for.
  • Reflecting on the interviews afterward, Channel 12’s Amit Segal writes that this was the first time that Netanyahu had spoken publicly about his willingness to step down at an agreed upon date. “It took 14 years and a pandemic that has like nothign since the days of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, yet it happened last night: Benjamin Netanyahu looked straight at the camera and for the first time provided a date for when he will pack his belongings from Balfour Street and cease serving as Israel’s prime minister: September 2021.”
  • However, Netanyahu also sets an ultimatum, warning Blue and White on Channel 13 that if it moves forward with plans to replace Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, his unity government offer — of serving for a year and a half after which Gantz would take over — will no longer be on the table.

6. Taking to the inter-webs: With bans on congregating of more than ten people, anti-Netanyahu activists were forced to find a different platform through which they could demonstrate against the Likud party’s unprecedented shuttering of the Knesset last week. They found their solution in a Facebook Live streamed event that was tuned into by a whopping 600,000-plus Israelis.

  • Former Shin Bet head Yuval Diskin used the platform to lambaste Gantz for even being willing to consider entering a unity government under Netanyahu after vowing repeatedly throughout the campaign that he would never take such a step. “It’s shameful and even disgraceful,” he tells the virtual demonstrators. “I and many others who voted for Blue and White solely because it was the least bad choice over the past few days have sadly discovered that we made a really bad choice.”
  • The online event was emceed by TV personality Lucy Aharish, who among other roles broadcasts a show on the Kan public broadcaster. The network last month had suspended anchor Erel Segal after he appeared in a video singing Sabbath songs with Netanyahu, just weeks before the election. So it was no surprise when the network gave Aharish the similar boot hours after the protest.
  • Nonetheless, Kan is claiming that the move had nothing to do with Aharish’s participation in the protest, claiming that due to the coronavirus, the network had cut the show of Geula Even in order to provide more time for news coverage. Kan says that because Even is a more longterm employee of the network, it felt obligated to keep her, hence its decision to have her replace Aharish on the pop-culture show that the latter began co-broadcasting last week. Despite the official reason given by Kan, most of the other media networks reporting on the firing don’t seem to be buying that it had to do with anything besides the protest.
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