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Countries across globe lock down as world passes China in coronavirus cases

Hundreds of deaths reported in Western Europe alone as US and other places begin putting heavy restrictions on movement and close contact between people to stem pandemic

Local police officers patrol a street in order to control people's movement in Ronda, Spain, in light of the coronavirus, COVID-19, spread, on March 15, 2020. (JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)
Local police officers patrol a street in order to control people's movement in Ronda, Spain, in light of the coronavirus, COVID-19, spread, on March 15, 2020. (JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

The Times of Israel liveblogged Sunday’s events as they unfolded.

Number of coronavirus cases in Israel hits 200 — Health Ministry

The Health Ministry says the number of Israelis confirmed to have contracted the coronavirus is now 200, adding five new cases to the toll.

Of them, two are in serious condition, 11 in moderate condition, 178 are displaying mild symptoms and four have recovered and were sent home after testing negative for the virus.

New far-reaching regulations take effect — a reminder on what’s closing

As of this morning, Health Ministry guidelines announced last night are taking effect and closing much of the country, with all leisure activity nixed.

Israel has banned gatherings of over 10 people, including for religious purposes, and has required those participating in such activities to maintain a distance of at least two meters between one another. The Health Ministry has said Israelis should refrain from traveling in a car in groups larger than two and recommends that people refrain as much as possible from using public transportation.

All educational institutions are closed, regardless of the number of children per classroom, among them kindergartens, daycare centers — including home daycares — special education, youth movements and after-school programs.

Save for supermarkets and pharmacies, all malls are closed. Restaurants and hotel dining rooms are also shuttered — aside from those that provide takeout — along with bars, pubs and dance clubs.

Gyms, pools, water and amusement parks, zoos and petting zoos, bathhouses and ritual baths for men, beauty and massage salons, event and conference venues, public boats and cable cars, and heritage sites are also closed. All sporting events have been canceled.

For now, people are still allowed to go to work — though workplaces have been encouraged to prepare to facilitate work from home — but must maintain a distance of two meters from one another.

Netanyahu’s trial pushed off to May 24 as court activity limited over virus

The opening of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s trial in three corruption cases has been pushed off by more than two months due to new restrictions on Israel’s courts as part of the new measures to combat the coronavirus.

The move comes just two days before the scheduled March 17 hearing, which according to the Courts Administration of Israel has now been postponed until May 24.

Justice Minister Amir Ohana last night declared a 24-hour “state of emergency” in Israel’s court system, “as part of the national effort to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.” The decision means that courts can only sit for urgent hearings on arrest and remand orders, administrative detention orders, offenses under legislation “relating to the special emergency” and certain interim relief in civil matters.

While the emergency measures will initially only be in place for 24 hours, the statement from the justice minister’s office said that Ohana would assess the situation throughout Sunday to decide “on how to move forward.”

Pharmacy chains fix price of alcogel hand sanitizer

Pharmacy chains announce that the price of alcogel hand sanitizers will now be fixed at NIS 9.90 for 100 milliliters, after they were contacted by Economy Minister Eli Cohen.

Among the supermarket and drugstore chains to announce the move — which comes after the prices surged as a result of increased demand due to the coronavirus — are Rami Levy, Shufersal, Yochananof, Yenot Bitan, Victory, Be and Super-Pharm.

Group to file High Court petition against delay in Netanyahu’s trial

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel announces that it will later today file a petition with the High Court demanding that the “state of emergency” announced in the court system by Justice Minister Amir Ohana be canceled.

The move comes after the partial closure has delayed the opening of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial by more than two months.

The group claims that Ohana “is a temporary minister in a transitional government, who hasn’t received the public’s backing and whose appointment was never approved by the Knesset.”

It adds that “using the new regulations to rescue Netanyahu from facing a trial is grave and constitutes a new step in trampling over law enforcement authorities in Israel.”

Most gates to Temple Mount closed due to new virus regulations

Most gates granting access to the Temple Mount holy site in Jerusalem’s Old City have been closed as part of the new rules to combat the spread of the coronavirus.

Only four of the twelve gates are operating: The Gate of Remission (Bab Huta), Council Gate (Bab al-Majlis) and Chain Gate (Bab as-Silsileh) as well as the Mughrabi Gate, the only gate through which non-Muslims can enter the compound, which is known to Muslims as the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound or the Noble Sanctuary.

Chief rabbi gives personal example by praying in accordance with new virus rules

Chief Rabbi David Lau participates in a morning prayer attended by exactly ten people — the minimum for a Jewish minyan representing a “community of Israel” for liturgical purposes and the maximum allowed by current Health Ministry regulations due to the coronavirus — with all of them maintaining a distance of at least two meters from one another.

Parties to meet Rivlin and recommend a prime minister — a full timetable

Overshadowed by the coronavirus crisis, Knesset party representatives will arrive throughout the day at President Reuven Rivlin’s official residence to say whom they recommend for prime minister following the March 2 elections.

Representatives for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party will arrive at 10:30 a.m.

The rival Blue and White party will arrive at 11:15 a.m. to recommend its leader, Benny Gantz, followed by, at 12 p.m., the Joint List alliance of Arab and Arab-majority parties, parts of which could recommend Gantz.

President Reuven Rivlin meets with members of the Joint List at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on September 22, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Immediately afterwards — no time has been given — the president will meet representatives of the Shas ultra-Orthodox party.

After a break, the second Haredi party, United Torah Judaism, will arrive at 5:45 p.m. followed by Labor-Gesher-Meretz at 6:30, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu at 7:15 and Yamina at 8.

Netanyahu is expected to get the backing of 58 Knesset members in his right-wing religious bloc, three short of the necessary majority of 61 in the 120-member parliament.

But he is likely to be the first tasked to form a government since Gantz is reportedly guaranteed to get the backing of only 46 MKs, with most of the rest possibly recommending him and possibly recommending nobody.

Gesher leader Orly Levi-Abekasis has reportedly requested that she be allowed to submit a recommendation independently from her Labor-Gesher-Meretz party, and it isn’t known yet how many of the Joint List lawmakers will support recommending Gantz.

PM says he offered 6-month unity government; Gantz allies: ‘Dirty tricks’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he has made a detailed offer to the centrist Blue and White party for an emergency unity government that would operate for six months.

According to the offer, Netanyahu won’t be able to fire Blue and White ministers, and Benny Gantz’s party won’t be able to oust Netanyahu via a no-confidence vote.

He added that he was willing to discuss a longer-term unity government “on an equal basis in time [as prime minister] and formation,” according to which Netanyahu would be premier for two years followed by Gantz for two years. Netanyahu called for a meeting between him and Gantz.

Blue and White responds by accusing Netanyahu of sending the offer only to the media rather than directly to them.

Gantz associates are quoted by Hebrew-language media as saying Netanyahu is “playing dirty tricks, as if there is a proposal or talks for a unity government, to prevent members of the Joint List from recommending Gantz.”

Palestinian vehicles damaged in suspected hate crime days after Israeli injured

Police say in a statement that several vehicles were damaged overnight in the Palestinian village of Hawara in the West Bank.

An investigation has been opened into the suspected hate crime.

The left-wing B’Tselem group blames the action on settlers, commenting that “the urge to commit hate crimes trumps the fears of coronavirus.”

The incident takes place after a series of reported rock-throwing attacks on Israeli vehicles near Hawara and four days after a 14-year-old Israeli teenager was seriously injured in one such suspected attack.

Shop in Ashkelon goes up in flames as firefighters rush to scene

A fire blazes in a spare parts shop in Ashkelon, with fire and rescue personnel rushing to the scene.

No injuries are immediately reported.

Likud recommends Netanyahu as Rivlin begins consultations, urges unity government

President Reuven Rivlin begins his round of consultations with party representatives who will say whom they recommend for prime minister before Rivlin tasks one Knesset member with forming a coalition.

First is the biggest party, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud, which is represented by ministers Yariv Levin and Israel Katz. They say they recommend Netanyahu and present offers for a unity government with the rival Blue and White party as well as an emergency government to combat the coronavirus.

Rivlin repeatedly expresses support for a unity government, saying that it is the will of the voters, and warns against the possibility of fourth consecutive elections if the deadlock isn’t broken.

The consultations will be broadcast live online throughout the day.

Netanyahu ally Shaked says tracking virus patients problematic, should be supervised

MK Ayelet Shaked of the Netanyahu-aligned Yamina party acknowledges that the new decision to digitally track the location of coronavirus patients via their phones are problematic, and says she intends to ensure it causes minimal violation of privacy.

Yamina lawmaker Ayelet Shaked at the Maariv conference in Herzliya, on February 26, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Speaking to the Ynet website, Shaked, a former justice minister, says the tracking is “an extreme step and severe violation of privacy, but it could save lives and large sums of money for the state.”

“I intend to personally monitor the action and make sure it is done in a minimal and supervised fashion, and that it will be halted immediately as the danger is removed while destroying all the information gathered,” she adds.

Defense minister okays calling in 2,000 IDF reservists amid virus crisis

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett signs an order allowing the IDF to call up 2,000 reserve soldiers to reinforce the Home Front Command.

It is not immediately clear where these reservists will be deployed.

— Judah Ari Gross

Laniado Hospital bars visitors, announces restrictions on entry by carers

As severe restrictions on visiting hospitals take effect, Laniado Hospital in Netanya announces a complete ban on all visitors until further notice.

Hospitalized patients who require medical assistance are allowed a single carer for the shortest time frame possible. The carer must be the same person throughout the patient’s time in hospital.

Blue and White recommend Gantz as PM, slam Likud offers

President Reuven Rivlin continues his round of consultations with party representatives about tasking a lawmaker with forming a new government, meeting MKs Moshe Ya’alon, Karine Elharrar and Avi Nissenkorn of the centrist Blue and White party, who say the party recommends its leader Benny Gantz as the next prime minister.

The lawmakers slam the fact that Likud’s unity government and emergency coalition proposals were sent minutes before the round of consultations began, suggesting they aren’t serious and are only meant to cause the mostly-Arab Joint List party to think talks are ongoing and to refrain from recommending Gantz as a result.

They also criticize the government’s decision to curb the activity of the courts just two days before the scheduled start of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s corruption trial, leading to a two-month postponement.

They say they are willing to join a unity government, but voice concerns over it being led by someone facing criminal charges.

Israel delays opening of beaches due to coronavirus

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri says that the opening of beaches to bathers as spring begins will be postponed indefinitely in light of the coronavirus outbreak.

Deri says the decision to not return lifeguards to work until further notice is due to the ban on gatherings of more than 10 people and out of care for the public’s health.

Al-Aqsa Mosque closed for prayers due to virus fears

The Al-Aqsa Mosque will be closed to prayers over coronavirus fears, the Islamic Waqf which runs the site announces.

All prayers will be held in the outdoor parts of the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem’s Old City. Prayers are also banned inside the Dome of the Rock building.

Entire Joint List to recommend Gantz as PM — reports

Multiple Hebrew-language new outlets cites sources in the Arab-led Joint List party saying all its 15 Knesset members will recommend Benny Gantz as the next prime minister, minutes before its leader Ayman Odeh and MKs Mtanes Shihadeh and Mansour Abbas enter a meeting on the matter with President Reuven Rivlin.

After the September elections, all Joint List factions recommended Gantz except the Palestinian nationalist Balad, which had — and still has — three lawmakers.

Entire Joint List recommends Gantz, paving way for possible center-left government

The Joint List alliance of Arab and Arab-majority parties says all its 15 lawmakers recommend Benny Gantz as the next prime minister, but specifies that it is only if Gantz decides to try to form a center-left government and that it is only for the sake of replacing Benjamin Netanyahu.

Party leader Ayman Odeh expresses opposition to any government headed by Benjamin Netanyahu, and details the status of his party’s negotiations with Blue and White.

He says if Gantz and Netanyahu decide to try and form a unity government, “we will be its biggest opponents.”

Odeh adds that the Balad faction of the Joint List, which has been opposed to recommending Gantz, has nevertheless made the “brave” decision to recommend him.

The move could give Gantz a majority of lawmakers and cause Rivlin to task him first with forming a government, if also Avigdor Liberman’s hawkish Yisrael Beytenu party backs Gantz.

Liberman: PM’s new unity proposal merely a ‘blame game’

Avigdor Liberman, leader of the Yisrael Beytenu party which could later today hand Benny Gantz a majority of lawmakers backing him as prime minister, lambastes Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s offer of a unity government or a six-month emergency government.

“Since I’ve known Netanyahu for more than a day, I’m convinced that there is nothing behind those calls except a blame game,” Liberman writes on Facebook. “The conclusion is that Netanyahu wants to go to new elections within 6-8 months, on the wings of [his status as] the big winner against the coronavirus.”

France to limit long-distance train, bus, plane travel over coronavirus

France will progressively reduce long-distance train, bus and plane travel on its territory over the coming days in a bid to limit the spread of the coronavirus, the ecology minister says.

The country, which has already shut cafes, restaurants, schools and universities and urged people to limit their movements, will now seek to limit long-distance travel “to the strictly necessary,” minister Elisabeth Borne tells journalists in Paris.

— AFP

Iran reports 113 new virus deaths, raising total to 724

Iran announces that the new coronavirus has killed 113 more people, the highest single-day death toll yet in one of the world’s worst-affected countries.

People “should cancel all travel and stay at home so that we may see the situation improving in the coming days,” health ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour says in a televised conference.

— AFP

Shas recommends Netanyahu as PM, urges broad unity government

Shas leader Aryeh Deri tells President Reuven Rivlin that he recommends Benjamin Netanyahu as the next prime minister, advocating efforts to form a broad unity government or a short-term emergency government advocated by Netanyahu.

He argues that there is “no chance” of forming a minority government headed by Benny Gantz backed by the Arab-led Joint List, citing talks with “very important people” in the centrist party, trying to persuade Rivlin to throw his support behind a unity government and make efforts in that direction before deciding whom to task with forming a coalition.

Foreign Ministry spokesperson enters isolation over exposure to virus patient

The Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson, Lior Haiat, is entering a period of self-quarantine, after he discovered that he rode on the same bus as someone who was later found to carry the coronavirus.

“What does one do now?” he asks rhetorically on Twitter.

The bus ride took place last Monday, meaning Haiat will be isolated until March 23.

— with Raphael Ahren

World Zionist Organization chairman enters self-quarantine

World Zionist Organization chairman Avraham Duvdevani and other senior WZO officials enter self-quarantine after it is revealed that a coronavirus patient recently took part in a prayer service at the synagogue in the organization’s building in Jerusalem.

Jewish community head in France’s Alsace in serious condition with COVID-19

The president of the Jewish community of the French region of Alsace and of the city of Strasbourg, Maurice Dahan, has been infected with the new coronavirus and is hospitalized in very serious condition, according to Zichron Menachem, a nonprofit whose France branch is headed by Dahan.

The organization asks the public to pray for Dahan’s recovery, giving his Hebrew name for Jewish prayers as Moshe, son of Rosette.

ד"ר מוריס דהאן, נשיא הקהילות בחבל אלזס ובשטרסבורג בצרפת, יו"ר זכרון מנחם בצרפת, הוא גם האיש היקר שמארגן את מחנות הקיץ של…

פורסם על ידי ‏זכרון מנחם Zichron Menachem‏ ב- יום ראשון, 15 במרץ 2020

Ultra-Orthodox yeshiva stays open, ignoring Health Ministry’s guidelines

Despite the closure of education institutions, the ban on public gatherings of more than ten people and the instruction to maintain a distance of at least two meters from one another, footage from the Ponevezh ultra-Orthodox yeshiva in Bnei Brak shows that for at least some, it’s business as usual despite the coronavirus emergency measures.

Senior Haredi rabbi Chaim Kanievsky has been criticized for calling on the seminaries belonging to his Lithuanian sect to remain open despite the regulations announced by Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, the head of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, which also represents Kanievsky’s sect.

Netanyahu holds cabinet meeting via video call, asks businesses to follow suit

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds the weekly cabinet meeting via video conference call from the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, urging all government offices and private companies to follow suit.

“Anyone who can use this technology should do so,” Netanyahu says. “If not, chat via cellphones is acceptable. This is an example and also a request to follow it when holding various meetings.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) holds the weekly cabinet meeting via video conference call from the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem due to coronavirus regulations, March 15, 2020. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Visas to be automatically extended for non-citizens currently in Israel

The Administration of Border Crossings, Population and Immigration says that due to travel restrictions imposed to combat the coronavirus, visas will be automatically extended for non-citizens staying in Israel and whose permits expired since March 12 or will expire shortly.

The statement is relevant only to those with an A/5 temporary resident visa or a B/1 work visa.

The visas will be extended until April 30. The administration calls on the public not to come to its offices and says further instructions will be issued in the coming weeks.

Electric Corporation to stop disconnecting clients in debt from power

The Israel Electric Corporation announces that it will stop disconnecting electricity to clients who have debts.

The company director, Yiftah Ron-Tal, says “the Electric Corporation is sensitive to the public’s needs, and against the backsdrop of the tense atmosphere and the uncertainty, light and electricity are more than a vital product — they are a product that provides necessary security and stability.”

Knesset could be sworn in 5 MKs at a time

The swearing-in of the 23rd Knesset tomorrow will go forward in small groups, likely of five lawmakers at a time, to keep to the strict limitations on public activity announced last night by the government, Hebrew-language media reports.

It isn’t clear whether it will be possible to vote on proposed laws, which are normally held electronically via devices on the MKs’ desks in the plenum.

That puts in doubt the plan by the Blue and White party to force a vote on replacing Likud’s Yuli Edelstein as Knesset speaker.

Blue and White is insisting the vote will go forward but Edelstein has not approved it. The legal code does not include a reference to whether or how votes should go ahead in cases where MKs are barred from being all in the same room together.

Virus forces closure of key Shiite tomb in Iran’s Mashhad

The tomb of Imam Reza in Iran’s holy Shiite city of Mashhad has been closed to pilgrims until further notice in line with measures to stop the new coronavirus, a spokesman says.

“Currently, the porches of the mausoleum and generally all the covered spaces of the holy shrine are closed,” the spokesman for the shrine tells AFP.

— AFP

Austria bans gatherings of more than five people over coronavirus

Austria tightens restrictions on public life, banning gatherings of more than five people and restricting any movement to that which is absolute necessary, saying police will enforce the rules in a bid to halt the spread of the coronavirus.

The tougher measures are decided at an extraordinary session of parliament, during which Chancellor Sebastian Kurz calls on the population to self-isolate, only move out of doors when absolutely necessary and limit contacts to “the people they live with.”

— AFP

Israelis stuck on cruise ship off Chilean coast

About a dozen Israelis are stuck on a cruise ship off the coast of Chile, as they and their fellow travelers are not allowed to dock to fears of the coronavirus, the son of a British-Israeli couple tells The Times of Israel.

The Celebrity Eclipse was supposed to conclude its two-week tour in the Pacific Ocean and disembark today. But the ship’s captain told them that the Chilean authorities are not allowing it to dock, forcing the ship to go in circles off the port of San Antonio, near the capital of Santiago.

There are no known cases of corona on the Celebrity Eclipse, but everyone on the ship is expected to remain on board for at least 14 days before they are allowed to disembark.

— Raphael Ahren

Swiss cases double in day to over 2,000

In Switzerland, coronavirus infections have jumped by nearly 1,000 in 24 hours to 2,200 and 14 deaths have been recorded from the virus across the country.

Public officials have appealed for calm.

“We must not give in to fear,” Health Minister Alain Berset tells NZZ am Sonntag newspaper, calling on people to stay calm and pull together.

After new border controls and other measures were announced Friday, the wealthy Alpine nation saw shelves in some supermarkets stripped bare  as people anticipated tighter restrictions and shortages.

— AFP

 

Yamina recommends Netanyahu, says no unity with Joint List

Ayelet Shaked of the right wing Yamina party tells President Reuven Rivlin that her faction’s six MKs are recommending Likud head Benjamin Netanyahu to be tasked with forming a government, citing his and his right-religious bloc’s experience as the best chance Israel has to make it out of the crisis.

New Right MK Ayelet Shaked in Herzliya, January 27, 2020. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

She says other parties should join the coalition, a nod to talk of an emergency unity government, but says Yamina won’t be in the same coalition as the Arab-led Joint List.

“The Joint List includes people who are vociferous terror supporters, who in my eyes don’t need to be in the Knesset,” she says.

Israeli reports chaos, confusion on marooned Chile cruise

Jeremy Josephs, a British-Israeli dual citizen on the Celebrity Eclipse with his wife, complains that people on board the cruise being forced to circle off the coast of Chile are not being given a lot of information.

“A lot of people are scrambling around and making lots of alternative arrangements, even though they don’t really know what to make alternative arrangements for, because we don’t know what’s going to happen,” he says.

The Josephs, who split their time between Netanya, the UK and France, say they spent several thousands of dollars buying new return tickets trying to avoid flying over Madrid. “But we don’t know when we will reach the airport in Santiago,” he said.

Jeremy Josephs, right, and his wife, in an undated picture. (Courtesy)

“It’s organized chaos, as the British say. In fact, it’s not so organized, as so often in such situations. What’s going on on the ground is one thing. The other problem is lack of communication. The captain, a very nice Greek guy, keeps telling us every hour that he will update us,” he says.

The cruise started from Buenos Aires on March 2, and docked in Montevideo, Uruguay, before heading to Chile.

“The situation with corona deteriorated as we went along. Obviously, had we known it would end like that we won’t have gotten on board in the first place,” he said.

Josephs adds that the people on the ship are not suffering. “I don’t want to create the false impression that we’re in any kind of hardship here. It’s like we’re on a floating luxury hotel. The bars and restaurants and the pools are open, and we’re not restricted to stay in our rooms. So it’s not exactly like we’re on army base.”

— Raphael Ahren

Netanyahu and cadre tested for virus, despite showing no symptoms

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and those around him have been tested for the coronavirus disease COVID-19, his office says.

None of those being tested showed any symptoms before the tests, which were performed under the directive of the office’s deputy director for security and emergencies.

No results are announced.

It’s not clear how many tests were done. Many doctors and others in Israel have complained about a shortage of tests, where only some 6,800 checks have been performed as of Saturday morning, according to the Health Ministry.

The ministry has ordered more tests, but has told doctors in the meantime to limit tests to 700 a day nationwide, according to Haaretz.

Jerusalem hoping for virtual tourism boom as virus veers visitors away

With tourism to Jerusalem shut down, officials are hoping to still keep the city in the hearts and minds of potential travelers by offering virtual visits.

Museum staff will run trips around empty museums, accompanied by cameras instead of a tour group. Guides will do the same on the city’s streets. Jerusalem’s tourist authority hopes that thousands of would-be tourists who can’t fly to Israel because of the coronavirus will sign up for the tours, along with thousands of others.

The Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on March 15, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Ilanit Melchior, Director of Tourism for the Jerusalem Development Authority, told The Times of Israel that the online platform will be live in 10 days, and will prove an important asset when the coronavirus crisis is over and Jerusalem is rebuilding its tourism sector.

“Recovery will come, it’s just a question of time. And it’s about keeping Jerusalem in people’s minds and hearts until that time,” she says.

— Nathan Jeffay

MDA and army open joint coronavirus call center facility

The IDF Home Front Command and Magen David Adom ambulance service have created a joint facility with a call center to respond specifically to the coronavirus, in an apparent bid to lighten the load on the regular emergency numbers.

This call center can be reached by dialing 101 on any phone, which is the regular MDA emergency number. Callers with coronavirus concerns will be diverted to the new call center.

“The call center is meant for people in quarantine at home who develop symptoms, like a fever above 38 degrees Celsius (100° Fahrenheit), a cough or difficulty breathing,” the IDF says.

Soldiers and medics operate a call center specifically meant to respond to cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus on March 15, 2020. (Israel Defense Forces)

The military says approximately 100 IDF reservists have been called up to help staff this call center 24 hours a day, though current restrictions mean only 10 people can staff it at any given time.

MDA in February already announced the creation of a special call center to deal with coronavirus inquiries.

— Judah Ari Gross

Yisrael Beytenu set to meet Rivlin over recommendation for PM

Yisrael Beytenu is set to meet with President Reuven Rivlin to give his recommendation for prime minister.

Assuming the party pledges its tentative backing to Benny Gantz, the Blue and White leader will seemingly clinch the backing to begin talks to form a government.

Party leader Avigdor Liberman has said he won’t recommend Benjamin Netanyahu, but has not committed to backing Gantz.

Earlier Labor-Meretz-Gesher gave its backing to Gantz, though Gesher leader Orly Levy Abukasis’s seat was not counted among those recommending him.

Liberman backs Gantz, hopes for emergency government

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman recommends Blue and White head Benny Gantz for prime minister in a meeting with Reuven Rivlin.

He tells the president he backs a national emergency government, “because we are in an emergency.”

He says “the most sensible thing is a government of the two largest parties…. they will have at least a safety net of one party, Yisrael Beytenu, with seven seats. They can save all the sordid business of coalition building.”

Netanyahu holds talks with experts on tech solution amid worries over tracking

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office says he is holding consultations with experts on further steps the country can take to stymie the coronavirus.

“Under consideration are ways to maximize scientific capabilities in order to advance the ability to deal with the coronavirus,” his office says.

The discussion includes senior public health officials, as well as the head of the Defense Ministry’s unit for developing arms and technological infrastructure and the head of the Economy Ministry’s Innovation Authority.

The discussion comes a day after Netanyahu said Israel may begin using anti-terror technology to track the paths of infected Israelis, raising alarms about invasions of privacy.

According to Channel 13 news, some ministers are opposed to using the technology, expressing privacy concerns, while others draft a steering document on how it may be used.

A cabinet meeting by video is scheduled for later Sunday night.

Rivlin asks Gantz, Netanyahu to meet on forming government immediately

President Reuven Rivlin has sent a letter to Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz requesting they hold an “urgent meeting” to discuss “the possibility of creating a government immediately,” his office says.

The meeting is set to take place at Rivlin’s residence, and will be closed to press.

It’s not immediately clear if Netanyahu and Gantz agreed to come to the meeting, or when exactly it would take place.

Global virus death toll pushes past 6,000

A spike in deaths from the coronavirus in Spain has pushed the global toll past 6,000, according to an AFP tally compiled from official sources.

The worldwide death toll rose to 6,036, with 159,844 infections, after 105 died in Spain.

A woman wearing a face mask walks with grocery bags on the usually busy Larios street in Malaga on March 15, 2020. (JORGE GUERRERO / AFP)

While China remains the country with the most deaths with 3,199, the pandemic is now spreading more rapidly in Europe, with 1,907 deaths in the continent’s worst-hit country, Italy.

— AFP

Knesset members to be sworn in three by three

The Knesset announces that it will swear its members in 40 rounds of three lawmakers each on Monday, to keep too many people from being together at once.

In the plenum from start to finish will be President Reuven Rivlin, Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein and the Knesset’s secretary.

The swearings-in will take place in alphabetical order following speeches by Edelstein and Rivlin, which will only be attended by Likud leader Netanyahu, Blue and White head Gantz and Edelstein. The three of them will be sworn in together.

A worker disinfecting the Knesset on March 15, 2020. (Adine Wolman/Knesset Spokesperson’s Office)

The Knesset plenum underwent a thorough disinfecting ahead of Monday’s pomp and pomp and circumstance and pomp and circumstance and pomp and circumstance…

Number of COVID-19 sick up to 213 — Health Ministry

The number of coronavirus cases in Israel has risen to 213, up from 200, the Health Ministry says.

The number of people in serious condition remains at two.

The ministry also says 18 medical workers have tested positive for the virus.

US virus czar bemoans crush at airports

The US government’s top official on infectious diseases says he’s worried about the health risks of long lines and crowding at US airports amid new coronavirus travel restrictions.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, who heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health, tells “Fox News Sunday” that “we’d like to not see crowds like that” as Americans and other travelers return from Europe. He cited the aim of social distancing to prevent spread of COVID-19.

In this Saturday, March 14, 2020 photo, a Transportation Security Administration agent hands a passport back to a traveler as she screens travelers, at a checkpoint inside an airline terminal at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York. (AP/Kathy Willens)

Fauci says it’s understandable with a travel ban, people would immediately feel they want to “hunker and get home,” but if you’re an American citizen, you can get back “there is no need to rush back.”

Weary travelers returning to the US amid coronavirus-related travel restrictions have been greeted by long lines and hourslong waits for required medical screenings at airports.

— AP

Army delays pre-conscription meetings

The Israeli military says it is postponing all pre-conscription meetings until a later date due to the coronavirus.

The Israel Defense Forces typically requires all Israeli citizens who are subject to the draft to go through a series of physical and mental examinations in order to determine their level of fitness for military service in a process typically referred to in Hebrew as a tzav rishon, literally a “first order.”

The military says these assessments will be delayed until further notice, as it seeks to limit the spread of the disease.

— Judah Ari Gross

Health Ministry solves mystery of patient who got virus from unknown source

The Health Ministry says it now knows how one patient got the coronavirus despite no known contact with another patient or travel oversees.

The ministry now says the patient seemingly contracted the virus from a family member who was exposed to someone carrying COVID-19. It’s not clear if the family member is also sick.

The man, known only as patient 29, was the first in Israel to contract the disease with no clear epidemiological reason, sparking fears last week of community spread.

Germany closing borders with France, Austria, Switzerland

Germany will close its borders with France, Austria and Switzerland from Monday morning due to the coronavirus crisis, a government source tells AFP, confirming a report in German media.

The popular tabloid Bild had reported that the closures would take effect at 8 a.m. (0700 GMT) on Monday, and had claimed that goods and cross-border commuters would be exempt.

Chancellor Angela Merkel and Interior Minister Horst Seehofer met with state premiers from affected German regions on Sunday to agree the closures, the newspaper claimed.

The politicians aimed not only to slow the spread of the coronavirus, but also to curtail cross-border panic-buying, the report added.

Seehofer is set to hold a press conference on the decision later Sunday.

— AFP

Rivlin to give Gantz mandate to form government on Monday

President Reuven Rivlin says he will give Blue and White leader Benny Gantz the mandate to form a government at noon on Monday.

Gantz got the support of 61 MKs to be appointed prime minister, as opposed to 58 for Benjamin Netanyahu. One MK, Orly Levy-Abekasis, did not recommend anybody.

“Tomorrow, around midday, the president will assign the task of forming the government to head of Kahol Lavan MK Benny Gantz,” Rivlin’s office says in a statement.

Immigration to Israel continuing, despite crisis

Some 24 new immigrants to Israel will arrive on Thursday from the United States, and immediately enter a 14-day home quarantine, Nefesh B’Nefesh has confirmed to Haaretz.

Meanwhile, the Jewish Agency says in a statement that immigration to Israel is continuing on a “controlled and limited scale.”

In conjunction with the Ministry of Aliyah and Integration, and in coordination with the Ministry of Health, the Jewish Agency “is implementing special comprehensive emergency procedures for bringing new immigrants to Israel during the upcoming period so as to safely absorb them in Israel, in full compliance with the relevant authorities in Israel.”

— JTA

Government okays tracking sick Israelis phones

Israel’s government has approved a measure that will allow the Shin Bet security service to track the movements of carriers of the coronavirus using their cellphone data and other technologies, one of the ministers involved in the process says.

This proposal, which will give the Shin Bet the legal power to monitor the entire population, has raised significant concerns about its implications on personal privacy.

A man walks by closed shops and restaurants in Tel Aviv on March 15, 2020. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

“We in the government approved — following seven hours of consultations and deep professional discussions, and with many exceptions and structurally built-in protections — the mechanism to electronically block the spread of corona,” Transportation Minister Betzalel Smotrich says in a tweet.

“I can assure you all unequivocally: there isn’t and won’t be a ‘Big Brother’ in the State of Israel, even in the framework of an extreme event like what we are dealing with now,” he says, referring to George Orwell’s dystopian novel “1984.”

— Judah Ari Gross

New York City mayor says total lockdown possible

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, reacting to announcement of a curfew in neighboring Hoboken, New Jersey, says that a lockdown in the nation’s largest city could not be ruled out.

“Every option is on the table in a crisis,” the Democrat said Sunday on CNN.

In Teaneck, New Jersey, where there is a large Jewish population, all residents have been asked to self-quarantine, although the order is not mandatory.

Also in New York, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said the Army Corps of Engineers should be mobilized by equipping facilities like military bases or college dorms to serve as temporary medical centers.

In an opinion piece Sunday in The New York Times, Cuomo called on US President Donald Trump to authorize states to expand testing capabilities, set federal standards for shutting down commerce and schools, and mobilize the military to bolster medical treatment capabilities.

He wrote that “states cannot build more hospitals, acquire ventilators or modify facilities quickly enough,” adding that they need the expertise and equipment of the Army Corps.

— AP

Italy records 368 deaths in single day

Italy on Sunday recorded 368 new deaths from the novel coronavirus, its highest one-day increase to date, taking the total to 1,809, the most outside China, official data shows.

The number of infections in the Mediterranean country has reached 24,747, a count released to the media by Italy’s civil protection service says.

— AFP

61 MKs call for new Knesset speaker vote

Party leaders representing 61 MKs have sent a letter to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein demanding that a vote be held to replace him, the Walla News site reports.

The party heads all backed Blue and White’s Benny Gantz for prime minister.

The majority means a discussion must be held, though the health crisis may make such a debate impossible.

Netanyahu and Co. clean of COVID-19

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office announces that he and his inner circle all tested negative for coronavirus.

Blue and White’s Yael German retiring from politics

Former health minister Yael German will be retiring from the Knesset because of an unspecified medical issue, the Blue and White party says.

Knesset member Yael German at a committee meeting in the Knesset on January 1, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

German, who was also a former mayor of Herzliya, will be replaced by Idan Roll, number 34 on the party slate.

“Due to my current situation, I won’t be able to commit like I’m used to and like our job in the Knesset demands, and so I’m resigning from the Knesset. I’m handing over to a new and young force who will take my place and keep driving us forward,” she says in a statement.

Gantz and Netanyahu meet Rivlin on emergency unity government prospects

An “urgent” meeting between Likud head Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White head Benny Gantz has started, the President’s Residence says.

The three are slated to discuss the formation of an emergency government.

Rivlin is slated to give Gantz the mandate to form a government tomorrow, just before the Knesset is sworn in.

Elbow bumps as Rivlin-Netanyahu-Gantz summit begins

Video from the Government Press Office shows President Reuven Rivlin elbow-bumping Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, before starting a meeting with them and a skeleton staff.

Benjamin Netanyahu, right, elbow bumps Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem on March 15, 2020. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Both party leaders, who are not seen elbow-bumping each other, look somber, as Rivlin jovially appears to attempt to bring them together for a unity government.

Both had expressed interest in such a government to deal with the coronavirus threat, but refused to even come to terms over how to meet.

Benjamin Netanyahu, left, Reuven Rivlin, center, and Benny Gantz, meeting in Jerusalem on March 15, 2020. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Blue and White seeks way to hold Knesset debates

The Blue and White party is urging Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, and Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to ease restrictions on gatherings or find some way to allow Knesset votes to take place, along with committee meetings, the Walla news site reports.

The request comes amid an effort to hold a debate on replacing Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstein, now that Gantz has the support of 61 MKs to take power.

Edelstein earlier indicating he would do whatever possible to thwart any debate on replacing him, calling it an “attempted hijacking of the legislature.”

Blue and White seeks legal backing for Edelstein ouster

The Blue and White party is asking the Knesset’s legal adviser to issue an urgent opinion on whether Knesset speaker Yuli Edelstien has the power to block a debate on replacing him on Monday, after the Knesset is sworn in.

The letter notes that Edelstein backed a vote on keeping him as Knesset speaker almost a year ago, when the short-lived 21st Knesset was sworn in.

Quarantine shmuarantine: Nicaragua holds mass march against virus

As countries around the globe are calling off mass events to try to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, Nicaragua has staged a large march through the capital billed as a show of unity to confront the pandemic.

Saturday’s march is dubbed “Love in the time of COVID-19,” a nod to the Gabriel García Márquez novel “Love in the Time of Cholera.”

The government-aligned website El 19 says “thousands” took part.

Images in Nicaraguan media show people streaming through the streets of Managua on foot, waving national flags and banners of President Daniel Ortega’s Sandinista movement. Young people in blue wigs danced in the bed of a truck. Hospital and clinic workers also took part, El 19 says, holding signs with recommended hygienic measures.

No confirmed cases of the coronavirus had been reported in Nicaragua as of Friday, according the country’s Health Ministry.

— AP

Netanyahu-Gantz meeting ends after an hour

The President’s Residence meeting between Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz has ended, about an hour after it began.

There is no signal of any progress between the sides on an emergency unity government.

Jerusalem, Tel Aviv light up in solidarity with Italy

Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are both showing solidarity with Italy, which recorded a staggering 368 deaths from the coronavirus on Sunday.

In Jerusalem, the flag is projected onto the Old City’s Walls, along with the message in English “Italy, Jerusalem stands with you.”

In Tel Aviv, the iconic green, white and orange of the flag are used to light up City Hall.

“With joint efforts, we will be able to go through these difficult times. Andrà tutto bene,” tweets mayor Ron Huldai.

Government hashing out privacy-safety balance for Shin Bet phone tracking

The Prime Minister’s Office says the government is working to strike a balance between allowing the Shin Bet security service to track the phones of carriers of the coronavirus and limiting privacy violations.

Earlier in the evening, the government approved a controversial measure to allow the Shin Bet to use cellular data to retrace the steps of those infected with the virus in order to find people who were in contact with them and instruct them to go into quarantine.

This proposal, which has raised a number of privacy and civil liberties concerns, still requires final approval by the Knesset’s subcommittee on clandestine services.

“The prime minister did not accept the original version of the decision and requested many more restrictions in order to limit the scope of the information, the amount of people with access to it and to ensure that this information is not used for any purpose besides the fight against the corona pandemic,” the PMO says.

The government says this power will end 30 days after it is granted by the Knesset subcommittee.

Government officials stress that this effort is meant to save lives.

— Judah Ari Gross

Rest of world surpasses China in COVID-19 cases

The number of coronavirus cases outside of China has now surpassed the number inside, according to a tally kept by Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

According to the count, there have been 162,687 cases total, with 81,003 of them inside China. The rest of the world has seen 81,684 cases.

Over 75,000 of those cases have recovered, according to the tally.

Officials believe the number of actual cases around the world to be much higher, with testing yet to catch up and flag most cases. Some governments have also been accused of hiding the extent of outbreaks within their borders.

Lebanon announces two week shutdown to kill virus

Lebanon has announced a two-week lockdown, urging people to stay at home in a bid to stem a novel coronavirus outbreak that has infected at least 99 people and killed three.

People should not leave home except in circumstances of “extreme necessity,” and the international airport will close from Wednesday to March 29, Information Minister Manal Abdel Samad says.

— AFP

Fatalities in France jump by 29

France has announced at least 29 new deaths from the novel coronavirus outbreak, the largest single day jump recorded by the country, bringing its total to 127.

The country has seen 5,400 cases of the disease, including 900 in the last day alone.

The new cases came as France held local elections Sunday.

Both Spain and Italy also announced new highs for deaths in the last day.

Americans should prepare for more hunkering, administration says

The US government’s top infectious disease expert says he would like to see aggressive measures such as a 14-day national shutdown that would require Americans to hunker down even more to help slow spread of the coronavirus.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the public face of the administration’s messaging during a round of morning TV interviews, says the country should do as much as “we possibly could,” even if officials are criticized for “overreacting.”

He says he raised the issue of measures such as a shutdown with the Trump administration, and said it has been open to his ideas.

“I think Americans should be prepared that they are going to have to hunker down significantly more than we as a country are doing,” says Fauci, a member of the White House task force on combating the spread of coronavirus. He heads the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health.

Fauci says the elderly and those with underlying medical conditions should already be hunkering down, but other Americans, too, should consider “much more” restrictions on outside activity, from work and travel to possibly eating at restaurants.

In Ohio, the governor has ordered all bars and restaurants to shut down Sunday night, and Illinois is considering the same after revelers ignored warnings and packed bars for St. Patrick’s Day.

New Jersey’s governor is also considering a curfew, and other states are mulling measures as well.

— AP

Young woman arrested in Tel Aviv after breaking quarantine

The Ynet news website publishes video of what it says is video of a young woman being arrested for breaking a self-quarantine.

According to the news site, the woman tried to enter a grocery store in Tel Aviv, but when asked if she returned recently from abroad, answered yes. When she refused to leave, the store manager called the police, who showed up with Health Ministry officials in bunny suits to remove her. She was arrested after refusing to give her address.

On Saturday, even more dramatic video reminiscent of scenes in Wuhan, China, showed a man being pinned down and arrested on a Tel Aviv street after breaking quarantine for a second time in as many days, according to the news site.

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Jerusalem, Tel Aviv light up in solidarity with Italy

Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are both showing solidarity with Italy, which recorded a staggering 368 deaths from the coronavirus on Sunday.

In Jerusalem, the flag is projected onto the Old City’s Walls, along with the message in English “Italy, Jerusalem stands with you.”

In Tel Aviv, the iconic green, white and orange of the flag are used to light up City Hall.

“With joint efforts, we will be able to go through these difficult times. Andrà tutto bene,” tweets mayor Ron Huldai.