Hours before full lockdown set to begin, Knesset yet to give final okay

Amendment meant to allow for tighter lockdown and crackdown on protests and prayers languishes in committee amid haggling over final wording

People shop for groceries at the Rami Levy supermarket in Modi'in on September 24, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)
People shop for groceries at the Rami Levy supermarket in Modi'in on September 24, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

With less than seven hours to go until sweeping new limitations meant to curb a runaway coronavirus outbreak were set to go into effect, Knesset lawmakers had yet to agree on the final rules following an all-night discussion on implementing controversial restrictions early Friday morning.

Ministers on Thursday decided to drastically tighten the national lockdown already in place, removing exemptions, shutting down nearly all non-essential businesses and clamping down on protests and prayer gatherings.

The measure apparently include limits that go beyond what the cabinet is authorized to impose by legislation passed earlier this year, and thus must be accompanied by Knesset approval of an amendment to the existing law governing coronavirus restrictions.

Lawmakers rushed the measure through its first reading late Thursday and sent the measure to the Constitution, Law and Justice committee, where it was still languishing as of 5:30 a.m. as members haggled over various clauses.

Lawmakers in the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee discussing coronavirus rules in the pre-dawn hours of September 25, 2020. (screen capture: Knesset TV)

The new lockdown is set to go into effect at 2 p.m. and even without a Knesset okay, most measures will be covered. However plans to limit travel for protests will not be included, among other possible guidelines that fall outside the cabinet’s authority.

According to the Kan broadcaster, lawmakers may also discard plans for an amendment that would allow for the closure of synagogues, which had been slated to be shut down over the lockdown for every day but Yom Kippur.

Under the new rules, nearly all businesses will be closed, with the exception of specific companies and factories designated as “essential” by the Defense Ministry’s National Emergency Authority. The decision exempts supermarkets and pharmacies from the closure, and allowed restaurants to work on a home-delivery basis only.

The guidelines also place controversial limits on protests, which are only allowed in socially distanced capsules of 20 people each. In addition, traveling more than a kilometer to reach a protest will be prohibited.

Prayer gatherings are also being severely curtailed. Ministers voted Thursday to ban all indoor prayers in synagogues, with the exception of Yom Kippur, when groups of 10 will be allowed inside. Outdoor prayers will be limited to 20 people each for the duration of the lockdown.

Nearly all public transportation will be closed, as will the last educational institutions still open — mainly special education programs and private preschools.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man wearing a face mask during a nationwide three-week lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus, swings a chicken over his head as part of the Kaparot ritual, in Bnei Brak, Israel, Thursday, Sept 24, 2020. (AP/Oded Balilty)

Israelis won’t be allowed to travel more than a kilometer (0.6 miles) from their homes. Police will be deployed on highways and at the entrances to cities and towns to ensure Israelis don’t attempt to travel during the lockdown.

Reports have indicated that the final approved lockdown may also include closing Ben-Gurion airport, though an explainer of the guidelines sent out by the Prime Minister’s Office include travel to the airport as an accepted exemption from the rules.

The lockdown is slated to last two weeks, including the holiday of Sukkot. It may be extended if infection rates do not slow considerably.

Israel currently has one one of the highest morbidity rates in the world, recording nearly 7,000 new cases for several days running this week. Of the 61,924 active patients, 685 are in serious condition with 172 on ventilators.

Deaths have also ramped up in recent days as spiking infection rates from earlier in the outbreak take their toll. On Thursday evening, the Health Ministry announced that the toll had reached 1,376, which was 59 deaths more than 24 hours previously. Two more deaths were added to the tally later Thursday.

Government officials say a tightened lockdown is necessary after a closure imposed a week ago failed to keep people at home, but critics accuse Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of including an unnecessary draconian shutdown of the economy to justify limiting protests against him.

Authorities reportedly said Thursday that under the proposed rules, protests outside the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem would be limited to 2,000 people only, in pods of 20 people each.

Ministers have also sought a way to crack down on mass prayer gatherings, though efforts have run up against vociferous ultra-Orthodox opposition. Experts say indoor prayers are a major incubator for the virus, with ultra-Orthodox cities and neighborhoods experiencing some of the highest infection rates in the country.

However, community leaders have warned that worshipers will rebel if synagogues are closed but protests or trips to the beach are allowed, even though outdoor activities are considered less risky.

The decision to clamp down on both protests and prayers was reportedly the result of a compromise between Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, whose party has opposed limits on protests.

Netanyahu on Thursday rejected the notion that he had sought the full lockdown to halt politically damaging protests, arguing that “these anarchist and ludicrous protests” actually help him politically, but “the public is sick of them.”

Protesters against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu use chairs to stake out social distancing as they rally outside his official residence in Jerusalem on September 24, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The lockdown steps aren’t easy but saving life comes before everything,” he said during a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem. “We’re at the height of an ongoing war.”

His comments came after coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu said earlier Thursday that he had recommended “tightening the lockdown, and not shutting down the entire country.” He publicly reiterated his opposition to the new lockdown restrictions set to be implemented Friday, saying the economic harm will be “tremendous.”

According to Haaretz, one of the ministers who attended the cabinet meeting early Thursday morning that decided on further restrictions said: “It was clear that [Netanyahu’s] personal desire to cancel the demonstrations was in the background [of his decision-making process]. Every time someone said the word ‘demonstration’, he jumped.”

Finance Minister Israel Katz of Likud also lambasted the shuttering of nearly all economic activity for two weeks, a decision that contradicted the recommendations of the Finance Ministry last week. Katz was one of the very few ministers who voted against the shutdown in the cabinet.

A woman walks past a banner encouraging people to wear face masks in Tel Aviv, Israel, Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

“It’s possible to take steps to rein in the disease without critically hurting the factories and businesses of the private sector, the ones that aren’t open to the public and are careful to obey Health Ministry guidelines,” he said after the cabinet vote. “Israel’s economic resilience is part of its national resilience; it must be protected too.”

Science Minister Yizhar Shay of Blue and White left the cabinet meeting in protest, and threatened to quit the government, but later backtracked after meeting with party leader Benny Gantz late Thursday.

Officials defended the closure by explaining that previous measures had failed to contain the virus’s spread, in part because of low levels of adherence to government rules.

The IDF’s Home Front Command, which is building the national contact-tracing and epidemiological investigation system expected to be deployed in a few weeks to help stem infections without repeated shutdowns, said Wednesday that it estimates that as many as 41% of Israelis required under the existing rules to self-quarantine have not obeyed the quarantine rules.

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