Knesset panel narrowly approves cabinet’s lockdown rules

Lawmakers vote 8-7 to okay restrictions that took effect Sunday evening; MKs will reassess ban on restaurant takeout in a week if infection rates go down

Police at a temporary checkpoint in Jerusalem's Old City on December 28, 2020, during the a third national lockdown to contain the coronavirus. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Police at a temporary checkpoint in Jerusalem's Old City on December 28, 2020, during the a third national lockdown to contain the coronavirus. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A Knesset committee on Monday narrowly approved lockdown measures ordered by the cabinet to curb rising coronavirus infections.

The lockdown — Israel’s third since the pandemic began — came into force Sunday evening, but required the final approval of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, which can reject or amend the rules.

Knesset members on the panel voted 8-7 in favor of the regulations after the national-religious Yamina party opposed it, citing the restriction barring takeout from restaurants.

Due to pushback on the takeout ban, coalition whip Miki Zohar of Likud said the committee would vote again on the matter in a week if infection rates decline.

United Torah Judaism MK Yaakov Asher, the committee’s chairman, also said the Health Ministry agreed to amend the lockdown rules to allow Israelis to receive alternative medical treatments.

“The fact we’re now in a third closure is a disgrace,” said Yamina MK Matan Kahane. “What was agreed here on takeout is a death blow to more restaurants… we won’t allow businesses to be destroyed.”

A woman wearing a face mask walks past closed shops at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on December 28, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Meretz MK Yair Golan said the lockdown should be scrapped in favor of localized measures in high-infection areas, while Joint List MK Ofer Cassif slammed the sweeping new restrictions as “political.”

“Public health doesn’t interest this coalition but rather saving the prime minister’s ass,” Cassif said, referring to Netanyahu’s criminal trial on graft charges.

Lawmakers from Netanyahu’s Likud party lashed out at opposition MKs for opposing the lockdown.

“You’re trying to make a circus out of public health,” Likud MK Osnat Mark said.

The lockdown that took effect Sunday includes sweeping limitations on movement and commercial activity, but doesn’t shutter schools. Although declared to be for a two-week period, there is an option to extend, and health officials have already warned it will likely go on for a month.

Daily virus cases in Israel have been climbing in recent weeks, surpassing 3,000 on most days over the past week.

The latest lockdown rules bar Israelis from entering another person’s home; restrict movement to one kilometer (six-tenths of a mile) from home, with exceptions, such as for vaccinations; shut down commerce (except for essentials), leisure and entertainment; limit public transportation to 50% capacity; and limit workplaces that do not deal with customers face-to-face to 50% capacity. Fines for violators stand at NIS 500 ($155).

Israeli students arrive at a high school in the southern Israeli city of Ashdod, November 29, 2020. (Flash90)

Under the terms for the lockdown proposed by the cabinet, preschools, grades 1-4 and grades 11-12 were to have a full day of classes as usual, but grades 5-10 were to stay at home and use distance learning instead. However, the Knesset Education Committee convened on Sunday and voted to overturn the regulations, thereby keeping all students in the classroom.

“Lockdowns save lives,” said coronavirus czar Nachman Ash on Sunday, shortly before the lockdown began.

“We are in a race between the rising morbidity and the vaccines,” added Ash. “The vaccine campaign is going exceptionally well… the vaccines are streaming into Israel according to plan and we will receive more during the coming weeks.”

Health officials have expressed optimism that the latest closure will be the nation’s last as it steps up its vaccination drive.

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