Ministers on Sunday evening approved nightly curfews in some 40 cities with high infection numbers, instead of the previously planned full lockdown on a smaller number of towns — a plan that had sparked a threat of rebellion from some ultra-Orthodox mayors and a major political crisis with the ultra-Orthodox parties.
The curfews will be in effect every day between 7 p.m. and 5 a.m. Non-essential businesses will be closed during the curfew. Schools will be closed at all times.
The cabinet had been due to vote on a plan formulated by the government’s virus czar, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, to impose new lockdowns on 10 municipalities, including the Arab towns of Umm al-Fahm, Tira and Kfar Qassem, and the Haredi towns of Elad, Bnei Brak, Beitar Illit and Emmanuel. Israel this weekend passed 1,000 COVID-19 fatalities.
But facing a withering backlash by Haredi leaders, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier in the day called off the special cabinet meeting on the lockdowns and held a meeting with the heads of the two major ultra-Orthodox political parties, Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman of United Torah Judaism and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri of Shas, to hammer out a new policy toward so-called “red” municipalities — those with the highest infection rates — as he seeks to assuage rising anger in the Haredi street.
Netanyahu’s about-face came after four Haredi mayors published an unprecedented open letter earlier Sunday accusing him of “trampling” their communities and “turning us into disease vectors and enemies of the people.”
A Haredi political source was quoted by the Israel Hayom newspaper, generally regarded as a mouthpiece for Netanyahu, as saying that the crisis with the premier was even more severe than when Netanyahu sent the ultra-Orthodox parties to the opposition in 2013 and formed a government with their arch-rival Yair Lapid.
Even the revised plan was reportedly castigated by Deri and Litzman as “unacceptable” due to the inclusion of the closure of education institutions.
Both Litzman and Deri said Sunday evening that Netanyahu promised that even if a lockdown is imposed during Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, synagogues will remain open to worshipers.
Deri made the comment in an interview with Channel 13, in which he also voiced his opposition to nightly curfews and called for a nationwide lockdown, which he argues will come in a month anyway.
Netanyahu released a statement Sunday evening saying that the virus “doesn’t differentiate between nations and populations.” He said the classification of “red” cities “isn’t done to harass and isn’t random — these are scientific results according to the number and rate of infections.”
“Right now, that is mainly in ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities,” Netanyahu said, expressing his “respect” to leaders of both communities who “told me to impose restrictions.”
“We must take steps that prevent infections at events and weddings and in schools,” the premier said. “We will do what’s needed in a responsible way. Don’t listen to populists.”
Netanyahu was criticized, including by coalition members, for putting off the cabinet vote and changing the government plan in response to Haredi pressure.
An unnamed senior Health Ministry official was quoted by the Ynet news site as saying that neither he nor Gamzu were “willing to accept preference of political considerations over health considerations.”
The official reportedly said that the leadership must not “give in to political considerations that will lead to Gamzu’s resignation.”
Gamzu, who has been repeatedly lambasted by the ultra-Orthodox for pushing for lockdowns, told a Knesset committee Sunday that he was facing “organized artillery designed to divert my attention from professional decisions.” He said that “no ordinary person could withstand that,” describing himself as a friend of the Haredi community.
“The coronavirus is not a political issue,” said Communications Minister Yoaz Hendel of the small coalition party Derech Eretz. “The government made a decision to impose local lockdowns in ‘red’ areas, and that is what should be done.”
Opposition members were more blunt.
“The deal is simple. Bibi is giving the ultra-Orthodox everything they want, and in response they get him out of jail,” said Meretz MK Yair Golan, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “What happens when public health is on the line? Of course, the criminal defendant’s legal needs trump anything.”
“We are all held hostage,” said Yisrael Beytenu party leader Avigdor Liberman, who has regularly criticized Netanyahu and Haredi leaders since falling out with the premier last year.
“If you made plans for the High Holidays, it’s a shame you didn’t first coordinate them with Deri and Litzman,” Liberman said. “Due to the anger of the ultra-Orthodox parties, Netanyahu’s alternative will be a general lockdown from Rosh Hashanah until the end of Sukkot.
“Netanyahu isn’t afraid of God, but he is afraid of God’s representatives in the Knesset.”
In a further sign of the rift between Netanyahu and the ultra-Orthodox leaders, Ofer Shelah, who has challenged opposition leader Yair Lapid and urged him to hold primaries for the leadership of the Yesh Atid party, was invited for a meeting with Bnei Brak Mayor Avraham Rubinstein.
Shelah called on the government to take action that “considers the special status” of the Haredi city, but added that “the worst thing is the hesitance, the indecisiveness and the action out of political pressure that characterizes Netanyahu’s failure of a government on all issues.”
The letter accusing Netanyahu of turning ultra-Orthodox communities into “enemies of the people,” and vowing to defy lockdown orders, was signed by Bnei Brak Mayor Avraham Rubinstein, Beitar Illit Mayor Meir Rubinstein, Elad Mayor Israel Porush and Emmanuel Mayor Eliyahu Gafni.
“You never bothered to hear our voices, to understand our crisis, and to try to advance practical efforts to flatten the curve of infections, you weren’t listening and weren’t interested in learning,” the mayors charged.
Instead, Netanyahu “imposed one lockdown after another on Haredi cities, which never made a real difference — or we’d all have supported them with one voice and implemented them of our own accord.”
They accused Netanyahu of “trying to shift the media pressure to the weakest communities.
“We will stop cooperating with the various authorities,” they wrote, “on anything connected to the lockdown. The state’s agencies are welcome to act on their own, as they’ve done in any case over our heads. You yourself, personally, must take upon yourself the responsibility, prime minister.”
And they concluded: “The entire Haredi public will not forget the injustice being done to it. We will not forget who is the man who, time and again, signed onto turning us into disease vectors and enemies of the people through selective punishment of tens of thousands of families in the Haredi community. We see in you the lone perpetrator of these punishments.”
The view expressed in the letter, they said, had gained the backing of the Haredi community’s top rabbis before it was sent.
The measures proposed by Gamzu included banning entry and exit, keeping residents within 500 meters of their homes, stopping public transportation, and closing non-essential businesses and all schools, save for daycare facilities and special education programs.
The cities and towns designated “red” as of Sunday morning were: Kafr Qassem, Lakiya, Yakir, Ein Mahil, Daliyat al-Karmel, Tira, Kfar Aza, Jaljulya, Maale Iron, Emmanuel, Assafiya, Beit Jann, Kasra-Samia, Beitar Illit, Ka’abiyye-Tabbash-Hajajre, Tiberias, Umm al-Fahm, Fureidis, Buqata, Jatt, Rechasim, Aabalin, Kafr Kanna, Kafr Bara, Taibe, Bnei Brak, Arara, Zemer, Abu Snan, Qalansawe, Elad, Sheikh Danun and Nazareth.
Additionally, the following Jerusalem neighborhoods have been designated as “red”: the Jewish, Christian, Muslim and Armenian Quarters of the Old City; Shuafat; Shuafat Refugee Camp and Anatot industrial zone; Issawiya; A-Tur; Al Shaykh; Al Sawana; Bab a-Zahara; Wadi al-Joz; and Sheikh Jarrah.
Most of the localities where the new restrictions are to take effect are majority-Arab and -ultra-Orthodox areas.
Israel on Saturday passed the grim landmark of 1,000 deaths due to the novel coronavirus, according to the Health Ministry, becoming the 49th country in the world to do so.
In all, 14 new deaths were recorded over Shabbat, bringing the number of people in Israel to have succumbed to COVID-19 to 1,007, a toll that rose on Sunday evening to 1,012.
Even as testing rates plummeted over the weekend to just 15,317 on Saturday, there were 1,523 new infections confirmed, the Health Ministry said Sunday evening. The percentage of positive tests stood at a worrying 9.9%.
In total there have been 130,157 cases since the start of the pandemic, 26,683 of which are active.
There were 447 patients hospitalized in serious condition, of whom 127 were being treated with ventilators, the Health Ministry said. Additionally, 164 people were in a moderate condition.
Israel currently has the highest rate of new infections per capita in the world, by weekly average.