Knesset passes law doubling fines for lockdown violations

Legislation increasing maximum penalty to NIS 10,000 approved in 2nd and 3rd readings; ministers now expected to extend nationwide closure

Police officers seen during clashes with ultra-Orthodox men over coronavirus lockdown restrictions, Jerusalem, January 26, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Police officers seen during clashes with ultra-Orthodox men over coronavirus lockdown restrictions, Jerusalem, January 26, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A bill stepping up enforcement of the nationwide coronavirus lockdown by doubling fines for violators passed its final votes in the Knesset plenum on Sunday and will become law.

The measure was the focus of fierce infighting among the parties in the governing coalition and had threatened to hold up a vote on extending the nationwide coronavirus lockdown, which expires Sunday night at midnight.

It came amid flagrant, widespread rule-breaking in some parts of the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community and as Israel’s infection levels and death rate remain high, despite its successful vaccination campaign. Many institutions in Haredi society have continued to operate throughout the lockdown, angering critics who say that the current level of enforcement isn’t enough.

The law increasing the fines, which was vehemently opposed by the coalition’s ultra-Orthodox and opposition Arab parties, passed 40-18 in its second reading and 37-18 in its third and final reading.

The maximum fine for breaking the rules will increase from NIS 5,000 ($1,500) to NIS 10,000 ($3,000). The measure originally called for fines of up to NIS 20,000, but that amount was lowered following pressure from the ultra-Orthodox parties, which still voted against the final bill.

The maximum fine can be levied against educational institutions and anyone who violates the rules by operating a business, store, party, conference, ceremony, festival, organized trip, sports event or show.

Police at a temporary roadblock in Jerusalem during a nationwide lockdown ordered to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, January 26, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Ultra-Orthodox educational institutions that remained open have been a focus of criticism in recent weeks as most of Israel’s students were confined to their homes. The government official tasked with handling the outbreak in the ultra-Orthodox community estimated that 15% of its schools remained open.

Police attempting to enforce the lockdown in Haredi areas have been met with resistance, including violent attacks on officers and outright rioting.

Now that the bill on fines has passed, ministers are expected to extend the nationwide lockdown, now in its fourth week, later Sunday ahead of its scheduled end Sunday night at midnight.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz and his Blue and White party led the charge on increasing fines, against opposition from the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, which are closely allied with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud faction.

Gantz had said he would not allow the lockdown extension to go forward unless fines were increased, amid a lack of enforcement in ultra-Orthodox areas leading to gross violations of the health guidelines. Blue and White argued the measure was necessary as part of a general increase in enforcement of lockdown regulations to effectively curb the virus.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz in Jerusalem, January 4, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

During deliberations on the vote to raise fines, Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin of Likud used his position to rebuke Gantz for issuing the ultimatum.

With Gantz standing next to him ahead of his five-minute speech before the final votes on the fine-increasing bill, Levin told him he “failed miserably in safeguarding the Knesset’s status.”

“There has never been a situation where such an ultimatum has been made during a Knesset hiatus,” Levin said, accusing Gantz of “holding Israeli citizens and the Knesset by the throat.”

Gantz responded by saying he understood the “shaming speech you just made, which the Knesset speaker is not supposed to make. For over two months, this bill has been ready at the cabinet and you didn’t ensure it went up on time, and that’s a shame.”

Thousands of ultra Orthodox men attend the funeral of Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik in Jerusalem, January 31, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Gantz said a mass funeral on Sunday of a leading ultra-Orthodox rabbi who died of COVID-19 showed that authorities were failing to equally enforce the lockdown restrictions on all parts of Israeli society.

An estimated 10,000 people took part in the Jerusalem funeral for the head of the Brisk Yeshiva, Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik, who died at 99. The Israel Police said hundreds more were prevented from attending, but an anonymous official told Hebrew media: “We need to use logic. Nobody wants to see clashes that will likely lead to many casualties.”

Gantz said in a statement: “This is what unequal enforcement looks it: Millions of families and children are closed in their homes and adhering to the rules while thousands of ultra-Orthodox crowd together at a funeral, mostly without wearing masks.”

Netanyahu and Gantz, although theoretically aligned on the need for the lockdown to continue, were divided over the issue of raising fines for those who violate the closure. Netanyahu depends on the support of the ultra-Orthodox parties, and Israel is headed for its fourth national vote in two years this March after the power-sharing agreement between Likud and Blue and White collapsed late last year.

Regarding the lockdown, opinions are divided on how many days to add to the closure, which has shuttered all non-essential businesses and the education system, with the exception of special education institutes, and closed Israel’s main airport.

Workers from Chevra Kadisha Kehilat Yerushalayim carry a body before a funeral at a morgue for people who died of COVID-19, at the Sanhedriya Cemetery, Jeursalem, January 25, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

While the Health Ministry reportedly wants to add another week, ending the closure after the weekend to take advantage of two days when much of the country would not be at work anyway, some ministers prefer an extension of just a few days.

In addition, the Health Ministry is reportedly opposed to suggestions that some aspects of the lockdown be eased, in particular by reopening parts of the education system and certain commercial activities.

The lockdown has not produced a significant drop in infection numbers. Thousands of Israelis are being diagnosed with the virus every day and the positive test rate has remained at around nine percent, compared with lows of around just 1% reached in previous lockdowns.

Officials, including Netanyahu, have blamed the raging outbreak on new variants of the virus that are believed to be more infectious. The so-called British strain is believed to account for over 50% of all new cases in Israel.

January was by far Israel’s deadliest month yet since the start of the pandemic, with 1,367 fatalities of the total 4,738 as of Saturday night — nearly a third of all deaths.

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