Hit with legal challenges over night curfew, government weighs other options

Effectiveness of 3-week measure has been questioned by senior health officials including coronavirus czar; December 20 said to be target date to begin vaccinating

Jerusalemites and police walk near the city center on December 3, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Jerusalemites and police walk near the city center on December 3, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

A government plan to impose a nightly curfew over the Hanukkah holiday and through January 2 has encountered legal difficulties, prompting officials to consider other alternatives, the Prime Minister’s Office said on Tuesday evening.

Meanwhile, the Health Ministry reportedly told Israel’s health maintenance organizations that December 20 is the target date to begin vaccinating Israelis against COVID-19. The first deliveries of vaccines are expected Wednesday.

The curfew, which had been set to begin Wednesday evening and last three weeks, has been challenged as ineffective by senior health officials including the coronavirus czar, Nachman Ash. Justice officials have warned the policy may not be legal.

“Following the legal difficulties that have arisen in approving a nighttime closure, which is intended to prevent a general lockdown, alternatives are now being examined that will make it possible to prevent gatherings on Hanukkah and toward the end of the year,” a statement said.

“The Health Ministry is continuing to work on drafting the resolution and therefore the cabinet meeting scheduled for tonight will be postponed and is expected to take place tomorrow,” it added.

According to Channel 12, the Health Ministry will now recommend pinpoint closures based on local rates of infection, while specifically cracking down on Jewish areas with more serious outbreaks over Hanukkah and highly infected Christian-majority areas over Christmas and New Year’s Eve.

The ministry also seeks to establish that once Israel sees 2,000 cases a day — a benchmark it will likely reach next week — all stores, open-air markets and malls will close.

Representatives of the attorney general cautioned earlier Tuesday that they would not be able to defend the government’s decision to impose a nightly curfew against possible legal challenges because senior Health Ministry officials were not on board with the move.

According to a Channel 12 report, the justice officials relied in their opinion on the coronavirus omnibus law passed earlier this year, which stipulates that lockdown measures — apparently including curfews — may only be imposed in the absence of alternatives and only when their efficacy is clear.

The report said the justice officials also raised concerns that a curfew would increase daytime crowding because it would force businesses to close during the evening, and could thus have the effect of raising, rather than curbing, overall morbidity.

The three-week curfew would begin on Wednesday, a day before the holiday. The curfew would begin in the evening, around 6 p.m. or 7 p.m., and end in the early morning, around 5 a.m or 6 a.m, according to Channel 12. Israelis would be prevented from venturing beyond a certain distance from their homes during those times, the network said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends an event marking the eighth night of Hanukkah, on December 29, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/FLASH90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Tuesday morning that the goal of the curfew was to avert a full lockdown and buy time for the effects of a national vaccination campaign to be felt.

“Starting tomorrow, we will implement a plan whose goal is to reduce morbidity while trying to avoid a lockdown,” Netanyahu said in a briefing to reporters. “It is also important to understand that the end is in sight. The vaccines will arrive very soon, in the coming days, but as in war, people must not die in vain.”

A previous initiative to impose a nightly curfew, in mid-November, was scrapped by Netanyahu, who, amid strong pushback from health officials and ministers, conceded that the move would be ineffective.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit speaks during an event at Bar Ilan University, March 4, 2020. (FLASH90)

Ash, the coronavirus czar, expressed hesitation about a curfew. “We cannot know if a nightly curfew will be effective; it only delays the inevitable,” Ash was quoted by the Walla news site as saying during a meeting of the coronavirus cabinet Sunday evening.

During Monday’s meeting, he said approving a curfew was tantamount to “stating unequivocally that we will enter a full lockdown in early January,” Army Radio reported.

Israel’s coronavirus czar Prof. Nachman Ash, seen during a visit at the Jerusalem Municipality on November 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Indeed, under the plan approved by the ministers, if infection rates do not drop by December 20, and the daily cases climb to 3,500, stores and other businesses that accept customers will be closed. Furthermore, should the cases continue to rise, topping 4,500 per day by January 2, Israel would enter its third nationwide lockdown.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein is also on record doubting the efficacy of a nightly curfew.

Israel imposed its second nationwide lockdown in mid-September over the High Holidays, and it remained fully in place until mid-October, when the government began to gradually lift the rules. It has yet to lift all of the restrictions imposed at that time.

Healthcare workers take test samples from Israelis to check if they have been infected with the coronavirus in Lod, on December 1, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

The country recorded its highest number of daily coronavirus cases in almost two months on Monday, as runaway infections upended the country’s gains during its second national lockdown and threatened to bring a third crashing down.

There were 1,837 new cases of the virus diagnosed on Monday, the Health Ministry said Tuesday, bringing the total number of infections since the outset of the pandemic to 347,331.

The last time Israel had more than 1,800 daily cases was on October 10, when it was still at the height of its second lockdown. Israel has seen daily case tallies nearly double in the last two weeks, according to a report from the Coronavirus National Information and Knowledge Center.

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