Israeli virus toll hits 20 as police put checkpoints around hotspot Bnei Brak

Israeli virus toll hits 20 as police put checkpoints around hotspot Bnei Brak

Number of sick rises to 5,358; man in his 70s, 90-year-old are two latest victims of pandemic; in ultra-Orthodox city, officers checking IDs of arrivals, particularly non-residents

Israeli police talk to a driver at a checkpoint in Bnei Brak, a predominantly ultra-Orthodox city east of Tel Aviv, on March 31, 2020, as part of measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus. (Jack Guez/AFP)
Israeli police talk to a driver at a checkpoint in Bnei Brak, a predominantly ultra-Orthodox city east of Tel Aviv, on March 31, 2020, as part of measures to curb the spread of the coronavirus. (Jack Guez/AFP)

A 90-year-old man and a man in his 70s died Tuesday from the novel coronavirus, bringing the number of deaths in Israel to 20, as the number of sick rose to 5,358 and police began setting up checkpoints at entrances to a predominantly ultra-Orthodox city that has recorded a large number of COVID-19 cases.

The 90-year-old died at Wolfson Medical Center after being sedated and connected to a respirator, officials there said.

Samson Assuta Ashdod University Hospital, where the second man had been treated, said he had a number of preexisting diseases. There was no immediate information on his identity.

They were the fourth and fifth people to die Tuesday from the virus.

Israeli firefighters in protective gear disinfect Samson Assuta Ashdod University Hospital on March 22, 2020, as part of measures to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. (Flash90)

According to the latest Health Ministry figures Tuesday evening, there have been 5,358 confirmed COVID-19 cases in Israel, a rise of 663 cases since the previous evening.

That included 94 people in serious condition, of whom 76 were attached to ventilators, the ministry said. Another 105 people were in moderate condition, 224 patients had recovered, and the rest had mild symptoms.

Also Tuesday, the Health Ministry published a breakdown of the number of coronavirus cases by city. The city with the highest number of infections was Jerusalem, which had 650 cases, followed by Bnei Brak, a majority ultra-Orthodox city east of Tel Aviv, which followed with 571 cases, despite having less than a quarter of the residents of the capital.

Police on Tuesday set up checkpoints around Bnei Brak and were checking IDs of anyone trying to enter, as the government moved toward placing a cordon around the city of nearly 200,000.

Police were reportedly allowing many drivers to pass through but in the case of non-residents, they were checking what business the arrivals had in the densely populated city, and were ensuring none of those passing through were meant to be in self-quarantine.

The checkpoints were also designed to make sure multiple passengers were not in the cars, as per Health Ministry guidelines, and to make sure residents were aware of the city’s precarious situation, according to Channel 12 news.

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

Police officers man a checkpoint at an entrance to the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak, which has seen a large number of coronavirus cases, on March 31, 2020. (Gili Yaari/Flash90)

Earlier, Channel 12 reported the Health Ministry was close to imposing a closure on Bnei Brak and had already prepared an injunction to go ahead with a closure on the town, which has the highest ratio of confirmed cases of coronavirus infection to tests carried out.

According to the report, the injunction states that residents of the town will only be allowed out of their homes “to purchase food, medicines and essential items, within the closed area; to seek medical assistance, even if it is outside of the closed area.” Employees of essential industries will be allowed to leave the restricted area to go to and return from work, the report claimed.

Most government ministers back putting a cordon on the city, but the National Security Council was opposed, arguing it was not possible to implement and could make Bnei Brak’s ultra-Orthodox residents adhere less to directives, the Kan public broadcaster reported Tuesday.

An Israeli man comes to get checked at a Magen David Adom national emergency service drive through complex in Bnei Brak on March 31, 2020 (Flash90)

Bnei Brak’s mayor warned Tuesday evening against making his city into a prison or “a ghetto.”

Mayor Avraham Rubinstein said “We cannot build a new prison: Bnei Brak Prison. Reality won’t enable it. Residents won’t be able to live it down. We can not make Bnei Brak into a ghetto.”

The cabinet instead decided to increase the number of police in the city and up enforcement of the emergency ordinances, the report said.

On Monday, Channel 12 reported that Health Minister Yaakov Litzman wants police to control the entrances and exits from Bnei Brak, and to provide food and essential products to residents to keep them at home.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, with Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman Tov, center and Health minister Yaakov Litzman at a press conference about the coronavirus COVID-19, at the Prime Ministers office in Jerusalem on March 11, 2020. (Flash90)

Health Ministry director-general Moshe Bar Siman-Tov confirmed that the issue had been raised in a conversation with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Ministry representatives.

“We are preparing for such scenarios,” he told Channel 12. “It requires intense involvement by the Home Front Command and the police — I believe we will see progress on the matter during the course of the day.”

The reports follow several incidents in which ultra-Orthodox residents of Bnei Brak flouted Health Ministry regulations intended to curb the spread of the virus, among them an open-air wedding and a funeral, both attended by hundreds of people.

Similar incidents have occurred in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods of Jerusalem.

Bnei Brak is one of the most densely populated cities in the world, with 198,863 residents crammed in, at a rate of over 27,000 people per square kilometer, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.

The overwhelming majority of Bnei Brak residents are ultra-Orthodox, including members of some hardline sects who have resisted government directives shutting synagogues, schools, and houses of study. Some rabbinical leaders initially dismissed the panic over the virus, but most have since urged their followers to adhere to Health Ministry rules.

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