As PM seeks ‘tighter’ lockdown, Gantz says he’ll back limits on protests, prayer

Cabinet to discuss harsh new measures with daily infections swelling to almost 7,000; defense minister says health and security as sacred as right to demonstrate and worship

A protester holds a sign depicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a protest a against him outside his residence in Jerusalem, July 31, 2020. (AP/Oded Balilty)
A protester holds a sign depicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a protest a against him outside his residence in Jerusalem, July 31, 2020. (AP/Oded Balilty)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will seek an immediate and significant tightening of restrictions, his office said on Wednesday as the Health Ministry announced a massive surge in virus infections and Defense Minister Benny Gantz said he would back limitations on both protests and prayers.

“The prime minister will seek a decision on a broad general closure and a significant tightening of restrictions immediately, as well as the closure of extensive industries in the economy,” his office said in a statement ahead of a meeting of the coronavirus cabinet on expanding the national lockdown that has been in place since Friday.

Hebrew media reports suggested that a closure of Ben Gurion Airport was also among a number of restrictions to be discussed by the cabinet.

In what appeared to be a show of support for the prime minister’s proposal, Gantz announced that he would back restrictions on public protests and prayers, apparently despite the objections of some ministers in his centrist Blue and White party.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz delivers a statement to the media at the Knesset on August 24, 2020 (Oren Ben Hakoon/POOL)

“In a democracy the right to demonstrate and protest is sacred. The demand of those who seek to pray as the Jewish people have practiced for thousands of years is also sacred and just. The demand of those who want to earn a decent living, return to work and take care of their children is also real and just. But no less important, certainly in national emergencies, is the right to health and security,” he said.

“Today, the coronavirus cabinet will present outlines to limit prayers and demonstrations made by professionals in the police, the Health Ministry and legal advisors to the government. We will back their decision,” Gantz said.

According to Haaretz, Blue and White will back a sweeping ban on protests so long as synagogues are shut down at the same time, based on the recommendation of a panel of experts. Such a move would require separate legislation.

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn of Blue and White, during a previous meeting of the coronavirus cabinet on Tuesday, objected to a proposal by Netanyahu and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri that there be a single standard for all gatherings, including protests and synagogue prayers, saying each type of gathering should be dealt with separately.

Netanyahu has criticized weekly demonstrations against him as a health hazard. There has been no public announcement of the number of infections contracted at the protests.

While indoor prayers have been curtailed, and may face drastically stricter restrictions, outdoor protests have been allowed to continue, leading some to question the guidelines. Transmission rates are presumed to be lower outside, but there is still risk.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews during morning prayer in a synagogue during a nationwide three-week lockdown to curb the spread of the coronavirus, in Bnei Brak, Sept 21, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Even after the lockdown began on Friday, the protests, held several times weekly outside Netanyahu’s Jerusalem residence, have continued as usual. The attorney general laid out rules to spread out protesters during the rallies into “capsules,” but they did not appear to be implemented during Sunday night’s protest, which drew thousands.

Under the current restrictions, prayer services can be held indoors but numbers are limited depending on the size of the synagogue, the number of entrances and local infections rates. The synagogues must accommodate four square meters per worshiper, with that rule overriding the others.

During Tuesday’s meeting of the coronavirus cabinet, a forum of ministers charged with formulating policy to counter the virus outbreak, Gamzu suggested that all indoor prayer services be banned. Deri warned in response that the ultra-Orthodox community is “ready to revolt” over the perceived asymmetry of the lockdown restrictions.

Police set up a temporary roadblock on Menachem Begin Street in Tel Aviv, on September 23, 2020 (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The cabinet debate came as the Health Ministry said on Wednesday morning that 6,923 new virus cases had been diagnosed in Israel the previous day, a massive surge to a record-high number of infections. A further 31 fatalities took the death toll to 1,316.

The latest figures pushed the number of Israel’s confirmed cases since the start of the outbreak past the 200,000 mark — 200,041 — only a month after the country hit 100,000 cases.

There were 634 patients in serious condition as of Wednesday morning, including 171 on ventilators, and 266 people classified in moderate condition. The remainder suffered mild or no symptoms.

The ministry announced a record 61,165 tests were carried out on Tuesday, with a high rate of positive results — about 11 percent.

Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu speaks during a Health Ministry briefing on September 2, 2020. (Screen capture: Facebook)

In an interview Wednesday morning, national coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu said that the public was still not fully cooperating with restrictions.

“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 told 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.”

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