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Government to soften contentious emergency virus bill after vast criticism

New draft of legislative package will not allow police to enter homes without a warrant to enforce coronavirus restrictions, a proposal that sparked widespread outrage

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

Officials have put together a softened version of a bill that would introduce emergency regulations aimed at tackling the coronavirus pandemic, the justice minister said Friday, and lawmakers would likely discuss the revisions Sunday.

The more tempered version of the legislative package comes after widespread outrage over the initial draft of the bill, from both the public and lawmakers, amid fears it gave the state sweeping anti-democratic powers.

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn wrote on Twitter Friday: “This morning we finished a round of amendments on the draft of the emergency law. Fighting coronavirus, protecting democracy.”

He wrote that under the new draft law, police will not be allowed to enter homes without a warrant, apparently walking back one of the package’s most contentious provisions.

Nissenkorn said Friday that the new draft of the so-called Corona Law will be debated by a legislative committee on Sunday, the Walla news site reported.

Among other measures, the new law will allow for declaring a state of emergency for 30 days, the Knesset will be able to cancel the state of emergency at any time, changes to the law will need Knesset approval within a week, and neighborhoods and communities can be declared a restricted zone for one week.

Under the new draft, the government can declare a state of emergency for 30 days, and the Knesset and courts will continue to function, Nissenkorn wrote.

Blue and White MK Avi Nissenkorn, head of the Knesset’s Arrangement Committee, at the Knesset on December 11, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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 law.

According to a draft memorandum of the bill reported late Sunday night, the government would 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.

Following widespread public criticism of the coronavirus bill, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Monday that the government would not allow police officers 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.

Responding to reports on the bill Sunday night, opposition leader Yair Lapid said the government was trying to “sweep the measures through under the radar.”

Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi likened the measures to “anti-democratic legislation we have seen introduced in Viktor Orban’s Hungary. That’s where this will take us.”

On Thursday night, hundreds of people protested against the law and Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, accusing the premier of using the coronavirus crisis to advance legislation for his own political interests.

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

Israel has taken steps in recent weeks to roll back its virus restrictions, reopening schools, synagogues, malls, restaurants and other spaces. While social distancing and hygiene guidelines remain in place, many have taken a more relaxed attitude as the virus appeared to wane, including toward a regulation requiring that masks be worn in most settings outside the home.

But a recent rise in the number of new infections, especially in schools, has government officials warning of a new lockdown.

The Health Ministry on Friday reported 133 new coronavirus cases over the past day, marking the largest daily increase since the start of May and continuing the recent trend of rising infections.

The number of active cases ticked up to 2,227, with 17,562 infections recorded since the start of the pandemic.

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