Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel, who announced over the weekend that she had been infected with the coronavirus, faced calls for her dismissal or resignation Monday after confessing that last week she broke a lockdown limit by traveling from her Tel Aviv home to the northern city of Tiberias.
She also reportedly tried to hide the trip from a Health Ministry epidemiological investigation into her infection.
Gamliel spent the Yom Kippur fast, which fell last Sunday-Monday, at a synagogue in Tiberias, where her father-in-law is the rabbi, Kan reported.
Gamliel, who tested positive on Saturday, did not admit to doing anything wrong, but allowed later on Monday that she may not have handled the situation correctly.
“I acted in line with guidelines, though it is possible I erred in my judgment. I am sorry, I will pay the fine,” she said in a statement carried in Hebrew-language media
Associates of the minister have said the congregants all wore masks and that Gamliel slept in a local family apartment in the city, parts of which have been declared virus hotspots. They also asserted on Monday that her husband owns the apartment where they stayed in Tiberias and that they were thus allowed to be there under the lockdown regulations.
According to Channel 12, Gamliel denied lying to the Health Ministry investigators and said she told them of her travel to Tiberias and expressed the belief that she had contracted the virus from her driver.
Critics have said Gamliel’s conduct as a cabinet member is incompatible with expectations that the public adhere to lockdown restrictions.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he was waiting for investigators to uncover the “full picture” before drawing conclusions on the conduct of Gamliel, a senior member of his Likud party.
“We are all obligated to follow the rules, both with regard to gatherings and other rules related to the coronavirus. This includes ministers and Knesset members and all public servants,” he said at the start of a meeting of the so-called coronavirus cabinet, according to his office.
“On the matter of Minister Gamliel, I recommend waiting on the conclusions until the Health Ministry investigation is complete. I think this is the right thing to do. We should operate on facts and investigations and not preliminary reports and I recommend waiting. We will soon receive the full picture.”
But the Health Ministry appeared to rebuff those comments, saying its epidemiological investigation into Gamliel had been completed but that it was not its job to do more than contact trace.
“Any information that is not related to contact tracing is not relevant and was not documented in the investigation,” the ministry said.
Israel has instated an ongoing national lockdown that, among other restrictions, limits Israelis to remaining within one kilometer of their homes except for work or essential needs. Visiting others’ homes is also banned.
Health Ministry officials are trying to determine how many other people were in the synagogue at the time and if the number was more than the permitted ten people allowed at indoor prayer services on Yom Kippur under the lockdown.
The Walla news site quoted participants in the Yom Kippur service as saying there had been 35 people in the building, about half its maximum capacity.
Epidemiological investigators were unable to contact Gamliel for several hours, Ynet reported.
The revelations about Gamliel’s stay in Tiberias came after she had previously tried to conceal the journey, telling Health Ministry epidemiologists that she caught the infection from her driver, Haaretz reported Sunday.
She eventually admitted to investigators that she had spent Yom Kippur in the Etz Haim synagogue in the Dalet neighborhood of Tiberias.
The Movement for a Quality Government lobby group called on Gamliel to immediately resign.
“At a time when the public is expected to obey the strict orders, it is unacceptable for an elected official to just disdain them,” the group said in a statement. “We are at the height of a crisis of confidence between the public and politicians and this violation exacerbates the already-serious situation.”
The epidemiological probe “is not a privilege; it is a requirement of every citizen who is infected,” the statement said. “To knowingly lie in a such a probe, allegedly, is a serious blow to public peace.”
Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu said law enforcement should investigate Gamliel over the breach.
No other ministers have been required to quarantine as a result of Galmliel’s infection as she has been conducting all of her recent meetings via videoconference, Kan reported. A small number of her immediate staff have been required to quarantine, the report said.
Gamliel announced her diagnosis overnight Saturday, tweeting that she was feeling well.
Rami Greenberg, the mayor of Petah Tikva, has refused to go into quarantine even though he met personally with Gamliel on Friday as they reviewed a termite infection in the city. The municipality said in a statement that Greenberg was not close to the minister and that they met in an open space.
Gamliel is not the first minister whose infection with COVID-19 uncovered violations of government-ordered restrictions.
In April, then-health minister Yaakov Litzman was diagnosed with COVID-19, reportedly after having attended prayer services that at the time were banned under his own ministry’s orders during a previous lockdown. Litzman, of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, later left his post in favor of the Housing Ministry, but last month resigned in protest of the current lockdown measures and the restrictions they place on synagogue services during the High Holiday season.
In August, Immigration and Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata of Blue and White tested positive for the coronavirus. That came weeks after Jerusalem Affairs Minister Rafi Peretz (Jewish Home) was diagnosed with COVID-19.
Multiple Knesset members have also caught the virus, the most recent of whom was Ayman Odeh, who leads the majority-Arab Joint List party.
During the first lockdown earlier this year, there were multiple reports of lockdown violations by politicians and their families, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Reuven Rivlin.