Ministers okay higher lockdown violation fines, but Haredim vow to foil measure

Cabinet bounces next stage of approval to smaller coronavirus cabinet as ultra-Orthodox say they’ll vote against bill in Knesset

United Torah Judaism's Yaakov Litzman (left) and Moshe Gafni at a press conference in Bnei Brak on May 30, 2019. (Flash90)
United Torah Judaism's Yaakov Litzman (left) and Moshe Gafni at a press conference in Bnei Brak on May 30, 2019. (Flash90)

The cabinet on Sunday endorsed in principle new regulations increasing the fines for violations of coronavirus lockdown restrictions, but under pressure from ultra-Orthodox parties deferred the matter for discussion Monday by the so-called coronavirus cabinet before it is advanced to the Knesset for final approval.

After over a month of national lockdown that succeeded in curbing high infection rates but also paralyzed much of the economy and public life, the government has struggled to agree on how to ease the restrictions, with pressure from some ministers to quickly lift the closure facing opposing by other cabinet members — among them the prime minister — who want to move more cautiously.

Ministers from the ultra-Orthodox Shas party either voted against the new fines or were absent from the vote during the weekly cabinet meeting, Hebrew media reported. The leaders of the other ultra-Orthodox party, United Torah Judaism — which doesn’t have ministers — reiterated that they would vote against the proposed regulations in both Knesset committees and in the plenum.

The ultra-Orthodox parties view the regulations as targeting their community since the majority of institutions found to be violating the rules so far have been ultra-Orthodox.

“The government approved in principle drafting the bill ‘Special authorities — fines’ and decided that the coronavirus cabinet will meet to discuss the bill before it is transferred to the Ministerial Committee for Legislation,” the Prime Minister’s Office said in a statement.

During the cabinet meeting Construction Minister Yitzhak Cohen of Shas called for the proposal to be dropped, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, stressing the important role that fines play in enforcement, refused, the Kan public broadcaster reported.

Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata, of the Blue and White party, and Religious Affairs Minister Yaakov Avitan also opposed the bill, according to the report.

The new regulations, if approved, would increase the fine for opening a business or operating a site open to the public from NIS 5,000 ($1,467) to NIS 10,000 ($2,935).

The current NIS 5,000 fine for holding a party, conference, ceremony, festival, entertainment or art show in violation of the rules would be increased to NIS 20,000 ($5,870).

Similarly, the fine for defying the ban on opening education institutions (other than preschools and grades 1-4) will be upped from NIS 5,000 to NIS 20,000.

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein speaks during a press conference at Airport City, outside Tel Aviv, on September 17, 2020. (Flash90)

The reopening of schools in May, after the first nationwide closure, and again in September, was blamed for the uptick in virus cases around the country. Many ultra-Orthodox schools for boys reopened earlier this month in defiance of the government rules. Since the start of the pandemic, synagogue worship has also been linked to the spread of the virus.

The row over fines came after Finance Minister Israel Katz and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, both from Netanyahu’s Likud party, verbally clashed over the potential reopening of street stores as a second phase in the easing of coronavirus restrictions takes effect.

Ministers last week approved the reopening of houses of worship, beauty salons and some schools, but put off a decision to reopen most stores in a move that infuriated small business owners and merchants — many of whom have denounced the government’s handling of the crisis and say they are being victimized.

In a post of his Facebook page Katz called for opening the stores as early as Tuesday, accusing the Health Ministry of an “unnecessary and baseless insistence” on delaying the move and claiming it is leading Israel to “anarchy and lack of regulation that will only increase morbidity.”

Edelstein retorted in a tweet against letting “populism” interfere with decisions on opening stores and accused those who want to rush ahead with the move of “leading us knowingly toward another lockdown and a financial, social and health disaster.”

Most shops have been shuttered since a nationwide lockdown went into effect on September 18 and have not been permitted to reopen even after some restrictions began to be eased last month.

Finance Minister Israel Katz holds a press conference at the Finance Ministry in Jerusalem on July 1, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Finance Ministry chief economist Shira Greenberg has estimated the cost of the continued restrictions on the economy at NIS 2.3 billion ($673 million) a week.

On Sunday the Health Ministry said 218 new coronavirus cases were recorded the day before as testing plummeted over the weekend, while the number of patients in serious condition continued to decline.

According to ministry figures, there have been 314,498 infections since the pandemic began, 10,473 of which were active. Among those currently sick, 404 were in serious condition, with 180 on ventilators. Another 112 were in moderate condition and the rest had mild or no symptoms.

The death toll stood at 2,541, up two from the previous Health Ministry update on Saturday evening.

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