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Dispute reported with US over continued closure of airport

Fresh fight expected in cabinet Sunday on when to begin reopening business

Gantz said demanding opening prior to planned Feb. 23 date; ministers to discuss allowing outdoor studies in high-infection areas

People shop at a mall in the city of Bat Yam which was partially opened against government regulations, on February 11, 2021 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
People shop at a mall in the city of Bat Yam which was partially opened against government regulations, on February 11, 2021 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Health officials and Prime Minister Netanyahu are expected to clash with Defense Minister Gantz at a coronavirus cabinet meeting Sunday over when to start reopening shuttered Israeli commerce, Channel 12 News reported Saturday.

The report said that while the Health Ministry is adamant that no new moves should be made before the February 23 target date, a position supported by the premier, Gantz believes dropping morbidity rates mean the government can allow suffering businesses to begin emerging from the closure immediately.

According to a reported proposal presented to ministers last week, the next reopening stage is estimated to begin February 23, and will enable opening non-essential street stores for all citizens. It will also allow more age groups to return to schools, while malls, gyms, hotel rooms, museums, cultural events and more will reopen for carriers of a “green pass” — a permit for those inoculated or who have recovered from COVID-19.

The pass will possibly include those who have a negative coronavirus test result from within the previous 48-72 hours, though that issue, and the legal ramifications of limiting access to certain people to some activities, is still being examined.

Jerusalemites wearing face masks walk in the city center on February 07, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The reopening will depend on favorable data on infection rates and vaccinations.

This week saw several malls open their doors against government directives, citing exasperation with what they have said are erratic policies by the government and a failure to provide sufficient support to businesses, many of which have been shuttered by the year-long pandemic and its repeated closures.

The revolt was called by a forum that represents over 400 mall owners, chain stores, small businesses, and executives from the restaurant, tourism, hotel, and entertainment industries. Though the forum had urged for many more stores and other malls to open, only three eventually complied.

According to Health Ministry figures Saturday evening, Israel recorded 4,595 new coronavirus infections on Friday, out of 67,143 tests performed. Meanwhile, 992 patients were listed in serious condition, including 296 who were on ventilators. The death toll climbed to 5,340 as of Saturday evening, according to ministry figures.

Recent days have seen a slow but consistent decline in daily new infections, as the effects of the lengthy lockdown and the vaccination campaign are felt.

As of Saturday evening, 3,820,505 Israelis (some 40% of the population) have received the first of two vaccine shots, while 2,453,631 (some 27%) have gotten the second.

The lengthy third national lockdown, in effect since late December, has seen non-essential shops shuttered. Leisure activities have been closed as well. Restaurants have been restricted to delivery service, and following the easing of restrictions, takeout as well. Schools were shut too, but this week saw younger grades return to in-class studies in towns with low-to-moderate infection rates.

Israel’s land and air gateways have been largely closed off, with Ben Gurion Airport shuttered for all but a few special flights by Israeli airlines to return Israelis stranded abroad.

Channel 12 reported Saturday that the US Federal Aviation Administration has demanded that Israel allow US airlines to fly such rescue flights alongside Israeli flights, or they will prevent El Al flights from landing in the US.

According to the report, the FAA is warning that current Israeli policy, to allow only Israeli airlines to fly the routes, are against aviation agreements between the nations.

Israel fears the UK will threaten similar sanctions, Channel 12 reported.

An emergency Transport Ministry meeting is expected to be held Sunday.

Israeli Passengers arriving in Israel in an emergency flight seen at Ben Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv on February 3, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

As for the general closure of the airport, Health Ministry officials told Channel 13 News they don’t plan on recommending the airport reopen for at least another month.

Ministers will discuss Sunday the further reopening of the education system, Channel 13 reported, and may approve grades 1-4 returning to study outdoors in cities with high infection rates, as well as vaccinated students in grades 11-12 returning to indoor studies everywhere.

Speaking to Kan News Friday, government coronavirus czar Prof. Nachman Ash said he believed Israel was on schedule to start reopening large sectors of the country in 11 days’ time, confirming the widely reported February 23 target date.

Israel’s coronavirus czar Prof. Nachman Ash visits Ziv hospital in Safed, December 24, 2020 (David Cohen/Flash90)

Ash asked for businesses suffering under lengthy closures to “hang on” a little longer.

Meanwhile, the Purim holiday, on February 25, is a cause for concern, Ash said. The holiday is usually marked by large costume parties and revelries in both religious and secular Jewish communities. Last year’s Purim is believed to have been a major contributor to Israel’s first wave of infections.

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