Israel media review

Morbidly obtuse: What the press is saying on September 23

Virus cases leap to numbers once though impossible, as politicians bicker over whether they can limit prayer while letting protests continue

Kite surfers and beachgoers are seen at a cordoned-off beach in Tel Aviv on September 19, 2020, during a nationwide coronavirus lockdown. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)
Kite surfers and beachgoers are seen at a cordoned-off beach in Tel Aviv on September 19, 2020, during a nationwide coronavirus lockdown. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

1. Infections mushroom: As of 8:30 a.m. Wednesday, the Health Ministry’s coronavirus dashboard, a frustratingly opaque yet singular source for those tracking the day by day rise (and rare fall) of daily infections, hospitalizations and deaths, remained frozen at Tuesday morning.

  • With reports indicating a whopping 6,700-plus new cases over the last day, though, is it any surprise that some technocrat could not bring themselves to punch in the numbers? (The ministry later blamed it on a technical fault.)
  • Ynet news reports that the number of new cases is 6,720, then changes it to 6,782, saying it is taking the figures straight from the horse’s mouth: coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu. (The ministry eventually puts out a statement tallying 6,861 new cases, on just over 59,000 tests.)
  • “In terms of morbidity we see that there are 6,700 new verified cases and of course this is a figure that is not related to the lockdown but to the period before,” Gamzu tells Radio Jerusalem. “It should be noted that we do not currently see full cooperation from the public — neither the ultra-Orthodox public nor the secular public. We have also seen certain violations of the guidelines and this requires further tightening.”
  • Ynet explains that the issue is a post-Rosh Hashanah glut of tests, which took two days to process. “Those around Gamzu explained that the dramatic figure, which tops the previous high by over 1,000, is the result of widespread testing on Monday after the holiday (with the tests being run in the labs yesterday). After the decreased testing over the holiday, Monday saw many more tests.”
  • On the minus side, Kan reporter Amichai Stein notes that 6,700 from 60,000 is still over 10 percent positive, which is not a good sign. “How did we get here,” he laments on Twitter.
  • “Israel is at war on several fronts against the coronavirus and parts of the public don’t understand that. That means that public information campaigns and enforcement failed. Mix in the complacency of local authorities and leaders and you have a recipe for a national disaster,” tweets Walla’s Amir Bohbot, in a sort of reply.
  • Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch tells Kan there may be many more cases among kids, but don’t ask him to pick their noses. “Due to a lack of information, you think that they get infected less. I’m not shoving swabs up babies and little kids. You don’t test a kid that doesn’t show symptoms,” he tells the station.

2. Two can pray at this game: The new numbers come as the coronavirus cabinet continues to mull new virus rules, which have essentially turned into a political battle pitting protests against synagogues, as the government appears to pursue a policy of symmetry rather than sound health policy.

  • “The public is in lockdown and infection rates are climbing, but the coronavirus cabinet can’t make decisions,” reports a clearly frustrated Yedioth Ahronoth.
  • Several reports note that the late night meeting saw Shas leader Aryeh Deri threaten to pack up his onions and go if the cabinet dares limit indoor prayer gatherings while allowing outdoor protests to continue.
  • “We live in a Jewish and democratic state. From my perspective it is a Jewish state first and foremost. If we cannot hold prayers in synagogues and the protests continue, I don’t think we’re talking about a Jewish state anymore and I cannot stay at my post,” Haaretz quotes Deri as having said.
  • On Wednesday morning, with the cabinet set to meet again, he seems to backtrack, appearing to be okay with synagogues closing so long as protests do too.
  • “Synagogues need to be open on Yom Kippur. They can operate on a reduced basis, according to Purple Badge standards, like workplaces. We will work to get lots of prayer spots ready across the public sphere,” he tells Army Radio.
  • Religious Affairs Minister Yaakov Avitan, also from Shas, explains to the same station why they should not continue permitting public protests, looking ahead to Sukkot, when the ultra-Orthodox hold massive nightly bashes under the aegis of a tradition called Simhat Beit Hashoeva, or Pump-House Party (don’t ask). “If you leave the protests, people will just call the Simhat Beit Hashoeva or any other event a ‘protest.’ We’ll lose public trust,” he says.
  • Many reports note that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cottoned to the idea of holding protests and prayers to the same standard, calling the demonstrations against him a “farce.”
  • For more proof that Netanyahu is behind the idea of limiting protests under the banner of health and fairness, premier-supporting Israel Hayom pushes the same “equality” idea adhered to by the ultra-Orthodox. “Hoping for equal decrees,” reads a top headline in the paper.
  • “Four days before Yom Kippur, there is a need for urgent national and social soul searching — and for a serious ratcheting up of the lockdown to try and widen the chance that Israel can survive the continuing rise in infections, sicknesses and deaths from the coronavirus,” the paper’s Ran Reznick writes. “For this we will need, unfortunately, to forbid prayers inside synagogues, to limit as much as possible people going in to work, and to enforce the restrictions much better, including implementing limits on the way protests are held.”
  • Kisch meanwhile tells Channel 12 news that tightened restrictions will only come after Yom Kippur, which is on Sunday night and Monday, but that they will be comprehensive: “Education will be shut down, the economy will be on the lowest gear possible, only essential work, no indoor prayer in synagogues, and no traveling between cities for protests. That’s what’s needed now to bring down the infection.”

3. No room at the ward: Given the mechanics of the virus, any measures take 2-3 weeks to see results, meaning Kisch’s upped lockdown would only begin to bear fruit toward the end of October. In the meantime, hospitals are on the edge of the abyss, or doing hunky dory, depending whom you read.

  • Haaretz reports that overcrowding in hospitals is so bad that patients are being made to wait in ambulances for hours until hospitals are able to take them in.
  • One Magen David Adom source tells the paper that ambulances can be busy driving around the country looking for a hospital that will take their patient for 4-5 hours. Another source from the rescue service says some hospitals are telling security guards to block any ambulance carrying a suspected coronavirus patient.
  • “Recently we’re seeing more and more cases in which we are referred to a particular hospital, and on the way there we get a message: ‘No, don’t come to us, we have no room.’ They’re in distress,” says MDA medical director Rafael Strugo.
  • In Yedioth, Ronen Bergman, who earlier wrote about being afraid to take his sick father to the hospital fearing it was overcrowded only to discover a surplus of room, now writes that his father’s condition has worsened, as has the condition of Haifa’s Carmel hospital, where his dad is staying, with more and more wards being converted into coronavirus zones.
  • “You feel the crowding growing from hour to hour. Tonight they will convert another ward and another 40 beds, out of 100 remaining beds for those who do not have the disease, ‘which will raise the overcrowding and the demand for each bed in the internal medicine ward to the point of chaos,’ as one senior Carmel official said,” he writes.
  • Other hospitals feel differently. Channel 12 news writes that it went to check the supposed overcrowding at various hospitals, and found two hospital heads in Jerusalem who say everything is fine, giving it enough cover to run a headline saying that hospitals are not collapsing and the lockdown is the result of panic (in quotes, natch).
  • “We can definitely close an internal ward and turn it into a coronavirus ward — so instead of having 70 patients, we’ll have 110-115,” the head of Shaare Zedek Hospital is quoted telling the station.
  • Kan reports, though, that in East Jerusalem, hospitals are being told to start taking in patients from the overcrowded Western wards of the eternal undivided capital.

4. When looking like Rome…: Kan also takes a camera inside the coronavirus ward at Western Galilee hospital, showing scenes that will likely be familiar to anyone who saw similar reports in the spring out of Italy and New York.

  • “The Italian scenario, of hundreds of deaths a month, is not far from reality,” hospital head Masaad Barhoum tells the station.
  • In perhaps the starkest reminder of what those places went through, Channel 13 news reports that the Haifa burial society has purchased a storage container, for housing hundreds of bodies before they can be buried.
  • “The container can handle many deaths in a short period, but has only been placed in the north. However, if there is a need, similar containers will be placed in other areas around the country.”
  • And while New York may seem like it’s out of the woods, JTA reports that one fifth of all new infections from the city are coming from six neighborhoods with a heavy ultra-Orthodox presence, and the numbers there are only going up.
  • Shira Hanau writes that at one clinic in Williamsburg, “where there had been one or two cases per week over the summer, those numbers increased to ten cases per week in early September and more than 50 cases just last week. The clinic is now preparing for a second wave with the same measures it took before the first wave, making sure the clinic has enough personal protective equipment and reviewing protocol for testing and isolating suspected COVID cases.”

5. Between a Gulf and a hard place: While Israel and the New York Hasidim are running in reverse, the Palestinians appear to be running in place and getting nowhere fast with their approach to Gulf states and others cozying up to Israel, writes ToI’s Aaron Boxerman.

  • “The leadership has dusted off a well-worn ‘crisis playbook’ familiar to fans of the genre: unity talks with old rivals Hamas and Islamic Jihad, protests against the normalization deal, and an attempt to extract condemnations from the Arab League,” he writes. “But this time around, it’s not working. PA-backed protests against the deal failed to take off. The Arab League rejected passing a resolution condemning Emirati normalization. And, most damning of all, Bahrain went ahead and joined the UAE in establishing open ties with Israel.”
  • “They’re scared. It’s like they’re in this tiny little box, and the walls are closing in. But they still don’t want to move. The fear is enormous — combined with a sense that there’s nowhere to go,” analyst Hussein Ibish tells him.
  • A Palestinian official tells Haaretz that there is some movement behind the scenes, but Ramallah is mostly playing a waiting game until the US election. “There is a sort of period of damage control, as we wait for November 3,” the official is quoted saying.
  • In Israel Hayom, though, Avi Bareli writes that the Israeli right is the one that needs to get its strategy straight: “Israel is still not strong enough to dislodge the Palestinians’ destructive hopes. This needs to be intensified by pulling the ground out from their strategic bastion. The Palestinians still have not been denied the possibility of denying our self-determination, via mass migration. Maybe in the future we can mollify them, but only if we present the superior strategy, which will void them of any possibility of undermining Israel in the long run. We have to win this historic war against them.”
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