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Probe clears minister accused of lying to tracers about breaking lockdown

Attorney general says there is no evidence supporting claims that Gila Gamliel tried to cover up the fact that she caught coronavirus after traveling to Tiberias for Yom Kippur

Outgoing minister of Social Equality Gila Gamliel attends a ceremony marking her departure to become minister for environmental protection, at the Ministry of Social Equality in Jerusalem on May 18 2020. (Flash90)
Outgoing minister of Social Equality Gila Gamliel attends a ceremony marking her departure to become minister for environmental protection, at the Ministry of Social Equality in Jerusalem on May 18 2020. (Flash90)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit on Monday announced that there would not be a criminal probe into Environmental Protection Minister Gila Gamliel, following reports she lied to epidemiological investigators about breaking lockdown rules when she caught the virus.

Gamliel has been under fire since it emerged that she traveled to Tiberias for Yom Kippur and prayed indoors at a synagogue. Reports indicated that she tried to hide it from contact tracers, but Mandelblit’s office said there was no proof of this.

“There is no basis for an allegation of untrue reporting,” Mandelblit said in a statement. “The findings show that she fully cooperated and provided true facts.”

Breaking the coronavirus restrictions on travel from home can be punished with a fine. However, misleading contact-tracing investigators or knowingly spreading the virus can carry separate heavy penalties.

A police probe into a minister can only go ahead with a nod from the attorney general. Mandelblit made his decision after receiving the results of an initial police probe into the matter.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit at the 17th annual Jerusalem Conference of the ‘Besheva’ group, on February 24, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/ Flash90)

Mandelblit additionally noted that he has instructed police “that in cases where there is alleged evidence of a serious violation of restrictions by elected officials and senior officials, there will be enforcement even retroactively.”

The attorney general emphasized the need for officials to obey regulations and set an example to the general public to ensure widespread compliance.

Throughout the coronavirus crisis, there has been a slew of reports of lockdown violations by senior officials and their families, including the head of the Shin Bet, the Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff, two senior police officers, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and President Reuven Rivlin.

“One of the key elements influencing the public’s willingness to comply with the guidelines is the belief that these guidelines are necessary and apply equally to the general population.” he said. “This is severely damaged when elected officials and senior civil servants do not adhere to the restrictions. Violations of the restrictions by elected officials and senior officials send a negative message to the general public.”

After Gamliel announced she had the virus in early October, reports in Hebrew-language media alleged that the minister deliberately misled investigators, telling them she spent the Yom Kippur holiday praying at a Tel Aviv synagogue when she actually broke lockdown regulations and drove to the northern city of Tiberias, where her in-laws live. She also allegedly told them that she had caught the virus from her driver.

The Haaretz daily, which broke the story, reported Gamliel could not be reached for hours by the Health Ministry epidemiological investigators. She eventually admitted to investigators that she had spent Yom Kippur at the Etz Haim synagogue in the Dalet neighborhood of Tiberias.

However, the epidemiological report notably did not mention the city of Tiberias, Channel 12 said, even though Gamliel insisted she did not lie to investigators and that she mentioned the northern city by name.

Gila Gamliel speaks at a conference in Kedem, in the West Bank, on September 5, 2019 (Hillel Maeir/Flash90)

Channel 12 additionally said Gamliel infected three of her ministry colleagues on her return to work after the breach.

Gamliel has not admitted to doing anything wrong but allowed 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 after the scandal broke and prompted calls for her to be fired.

Netanyahu said at the time that 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.

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