Police on Saturday handed out hundreds of fines for alleged violations of a national lockdown aimed at curbing the resurgent coronavirus outbreak in Israel.
Police dished out a total of 342 fines by 5 p.m., including 253 to Israelis who were accused of leaving their homes in violation of the new lockdown measures, according to the Walla news site.
The closure came into effect on Friday, hours before the start of Rosh Hashanah, and will remain in effect for at least three weeks. Israel, which has one of the highest infection rates in the world, became the first advanced country to order a second lockdown to fight the pandemic.
As of Saturday, the closure was being largely adhered to, with the country’s roads generally empty, although it remained to be seen whether that would be maintained with the end of the weekend and Rosh Hashanah.
A police source told the Haaretz daily on Saturday the force would not enforce new regulations governing protests, which call for demonstrators to be divided into “capsules” of 20, saying they were recommendations and not restrictions approved by the government.
The source said police on Sunday would expand the permitted area to protest outside the Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem, in order to allow demonstrators to socially distance. Police were also expected to call on demonstrators to maintain groups of no more than 20 people.
The Prime Minister’s Residence has been at the center of ongoing demonstrations against the premier, over his indictment on graft charges and handling of the pandemic, with weekly protests there sometimes drawing tens of thousands of people.
Netanyahu and his supporters have claimed the protests are a major vector of infections, though health officials have said no cases have been traced back to the rallies so far.
On Saturday around 200 people gathered at a Tel Aviv beach in protest of the lockdown restrictions, which many have decried as illogical, and to demonstrate against Netanyahu.
Organizers used a loophole within the regulations for the lockdown that allows people to travel beyond the permitted one kilometer from their home if they are to attend a protest. Closure regulations do not explicitly prevent demonstrating on the beach, although the beach is closed with the exception of those who use the shoreline for sport.
Many of the demonstrators did not appear to maintain any form of social distancing and many did not wear masks. Some protesters entered the sea.
Some of the activist groups leading the mass protests against Netanyahu criticized the demonstration in Tel Aviv, as well as a protest holiday meal held Friday evening outside the Prime Minister’s Residence, for not adhering to the lockdown rules.
The Black Flags group, which said this week that it would freeze demonstrations during the lockdown in deference to “social solidarity” and “social responsibility,” said its members weren’t involved in those events.
Another group, Kumi Israel, called on its followers to continue protesting while adhering to social distancing guidelines, while the Crime Minister group said it planned to demonstrate as usual and predicted thousands would rally on Sunday evening at the Prime Minister’s Residence.
Sharon Elrai, acting director of the Health Ministry’s public health services division, denounced the protesters on the Tel Aviv beach.
“I must say that as an Israeli Zionist it’s really hard for me to see these protests with Israeli flags, and the lack of understanding of people who on the one hand are waving an Israeli flag and on the other doing exactly what is harming the nation at the moment,” she told Channel 12 news.
There were also reports of several other gatherings disbanded by police. These included hundreds of worshipers at a synagogue in Haifa on both Friday and Saturday, who packed the entrance to the synagogue without complying with social distancing; and a small party of several dozen people at another Tel Aviv beach Saturday evening, who also claimed to be protesting against the closure.
The new lockdown is simultaneously more permissive and more complex than the weeks-long closure imposed earlier this year, with numerous directives and exceptions to those directives seeming to cause public confusion as to what is and isn’t in fact allowed.
While the government was praised for its initial handling of the pandemic, implementing a strict lockdown in March, many Israelis have expressed frustration at the prime minister and the cabinet’s perceived mismanagement of the health crisis in recent months.
On Saturday, Health Ministry figures showed 30 new deaths were recorded in the preceding 24 hours, raising the national toll to 1,226.
Israel’s total coronavirus tally stood at 183,602, of which 49,927 were active cases as of Saturday. The previous day’s new case count stood at 5,299, continuing the trend of over 5,000 new cases per day over the past week.
Patients included a record 604 in serious condition, 165 of whom were on ventilators, and 256 in moderate condition. The rest of the virus carriers were in light condition or asymptomatic.
Of the 53,993 tests analyzed on Friday, 9.8% came back positive, according to Health Ministry figures.