Military to evacuate 4,500 elderly Bnei Brak residents to quarantine hotels

Ministers set to approve new emergency directives, including almost-total closure of ultra-Orthodox city hardest hit by virus; plan to go into effect on Sunday

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Israeli police officers remove ultra-Orthodox men from the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, as part of an effort to enforce a lockdown in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus on April 2, 2020. (Flash90)
Israeli police officers remove ultra-Orthodox men from the Ponevezh Yeshiva in Bnei Brak, as part of an effort to enforce a lockdown in order to prevent the spread of the coronavirus on April 2, 2020. (Flash90)

The Israeli military will remove some 4,500 people above the age of 80 from the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, placing those residents most at risk from the coronavirus in state-run isolation hotels.

The plan will go into effect on Sunday, a spokesman for Defense Minister Naftali Bennett told The Times of Israel Thursday, as ministers were preparing to debate a raft of measures that could place the city under a near-total closure.

The plan was drawn up by Bennett and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, in cooperation with authorities in Bnei Brak and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, whose office will be providing the NIS 75 million ($20.5 million) funding necessary to carry it out. It was approved by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The highly crowded Bnei Brak has seen the second-highest number of infections of all Israeli cities in total numbers, and the highest rate by far per capita.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett (L) speaks to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a meeting with leaders of right-wing parties at the Knesset in Jerusalem, March 4, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The plan was suggested based on the understanding that the elderly population in Bnei Brak is at the highest risk [of dying from the virus], and therefore should be removed as soon as possible from the city, which is characterized by its extreme crowdedness,” a statement from the Interior Ministry said.

“The coronavirus pandemic is hitting Bnei Brak. The problem is the elderly; the elderly are in mortal danger, which is why we decided to send the IDF and the Home Front Command in an operation to extract the elderly from Bnei Brak,” Bennett said in a statement.

The isolation hotels, run by the Home Front Command, are being adapted to fit the lifestyles of the Haredi residents.

Those between the ages of 60 and 80 years old in Bnei Brak will be allowed to remain in the city, but will be expected to practice strict social distancing, the Interior Ministry added.

An IDF soldier at a temporary checkpoint in Jerusalem to check Israelis are not violating restrictions meant to contain the coronavirus, April 2, 2020. (Nati Shohat//Flash90)

Efforts by the government to remove residents — be they sick or simply part of an at-risk population — have run into legal difficulties, given that it is not clear whether police can force residents from their home against their will. Channel 12 said senior government officials were holding discussions with lawyers regarding how best to proceed with the measure.

On Thursday evening, the cabinet was set to hold a conference call to approve a raft of emergency directives ahead of declaring Bnei Brak — and potentially other virus hotspots — a “restricted zone.”

Ministers were expected to approve a measure that among other things will require COVID-19 carriers in the crowded town of 200,000 people to be transferred to state-run isolation sites.

The updated guidelines would impose an almost total closure on the city, limiting entrance to residents, police, rescue services, those bringing essential supplies and journalists, Channel 12 reported.

The new restrictions would last seven days and hold the option to be extended by five days at a time, Channel 12 said, adding that the Knesset will be required to authorize an extension beyond several weeks.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu announced strict limitations on travel in and out of Bnei Brak. It was not immediately clear what exactly those movement restrictions entailed, with Channel 12 showing footage of police barring non-residents from entering the city while two non-residents who spoke to The Times of Israel said they had been able to enter and exit Bnei Brak on Thursday unhindered.

A Magen David Adom ambulance service testing site in Bnei Brak on April 1, 2020. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Bnei Brak has the second highest number of confirmed cases of any Israeli city, though it is the ninth largest in the country by population. Per capita, its infection rate is four times higher than that of Jerusalem, the most infected city.

A Health Ministry breakdown of coronavirus cases by city published Thursday morning showed that the number of patients in Bnei Brak jumped by 173 in the past 24 hours, an increase of nearly 25%. Outside of Bnei Brak, the national rate of increase was around 11%, ministry figures showed.

During their conference call, the ministers were set to weigh authorizing the Health Ministry to instruct police to prevent entry and exit from certain coronavirus hot zones like Bnei Brak, except for workers deemed essential, Channel 12 reported.

The ministers were slated to authorize law enforcement to employ “reasonable force” against those who refuse to enter state-run isolation hotels. These include people returning from abroad, who — unless they can prove that they have a place to self-quarantine for two weeks according to Health Ministry guidelines — are required to lodge in the Home Front Command-run hotels. Food at the sites will be supplied by the state.

Authorities have upped enforcement in recent days of social distancing regulations in Bnei Brak and other ultra-Orthodox areas, where some have flouted rules against congregating or leaving home for non-essential reasons.

This week four public health clinics in the city were tasked with testing and treating virus patients, and a Magen David Adom mobile virus testing unit was also sent in.

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