A new national coronavirus lockdown from Friday will leave Israelis unable to venture more than 500 metres from their own homes for the High Holy Days, after hospitals “raised a red flag”.
The first country in the world to impose a second national lockdown, Israel’s leaders said on Sunday that medics raised the alarm, as the number of daily positive Covid-19 cases rose to a record 4,000 ahead of Rosh Hashanah.
The virus was set to spread through the mass gatherings typical for this time of year, and fear of even more Covid-19 patients in already-overburdened hospitals prompted the Israeli cabinet to take the unprecedented action, which will last for three weeks, from Friday through to 9 October.
The strictly Orthodox Housing Minister Yaakov Litzman, until recently the health minister, resigned in response to the new lockdown, arguing that worshippers should not be prevented from attending shul for the High Holy Days.
Weekly protests in Israel’s major cities have voice anger at the government’s handling of the pandemic, in particular decisions by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was quick to lockdown in March, but who reopened too early and too broadly in May, causing a much more deadly second wave.
Deaths in Israel now stand at more than 1,100, with a staggering 150,000 positive cases, in a country of nine million, and this week’s second lockdown means that all but schools and essential shops selling food and pharmaceuticals will be closed. Israelis still travel to workplaces, which will be allowed to operate on a limited basis.
Among the Saturday night protesters were owners of restaurants, gyms and cafes who said the lockdown measures were, in the words of one analyst, “akin to a terrorist attack” on Israel’s commercial sector. Many have said they will ignore the second lockdown and stay open, fearing bankruptcy if they do not.
Since May, the Israeli government’s strategy has been to impose local curfews between 7pm and 5am in areas with high infection rates, typically towns with strictly Orthodox or Arab majorities, as well as some West Bank settlements.
The country pressed ahead with a national school reopening programme on 1 September but excluded schools in 23 areas with high infection rates, including nine neighbourhood in and around Jerusalem.
Last week Netanyahu said the country was “at a high level of morbidity increase at a heightened pace”. Since then daily new infections have increased by 20 percent, with Israel’s per capita infection rate now the fifth highest in the world.
In July, Israel’s public health director resigned, saying: “It has been several weeks since Israel’s compass for handling the pandemic has lost its bearings. The achievements in dealing with the first wave were cancelled out by the broad and swift reopening of the economy” in May.
Globally, the official death-toll is now fast approaching one million. More than 1,000 new deaths every day are still being reported in the United States, where President Trump defied his own Covid-19 rules by holding an indoor rally this weekend.
Last week the United States and Israel voted against a UN resolution for a “comprehensive and coordinated response” to the Covid-19 pandemic, which included recognition of the World Health Organisation’s role. It was adopted by 169 other countries.
Before the vote, the US lobbied unsuccessfully to remove a paragraph protecting women’s reproductive health because it included access to abortion treatment.