The Israeli government has extended the general lockdown pursuant to existing detailed regulations for an additional five days, in further attempts to curb spread of the coronavirus and its variants.
The nation’s third closure, which is entering its fourth week, had been set to expire at midnight 31 January, after having already been previously extended. The lockdown is currently slated to remain in effect until 07:00 on Friday, 5 February 2021.
The Coronavirus Cabinet will reconvene on Wednesday for an additional discussion on whether it will be necessary to further extend the lockdown.
The Ben Gurion International Airport will be closed down for one week and all land borders will remain sealed indefinitely.
According to a joint statement from the Prime Minister’s Office and the Health Ministry obtained by TV7, Cabinet also approved extending the ban on entry into or out of Israel apart from existing exceptions for an additional seven days, until midnight 7 February 2021.
An “exceptions committee” is to be established to consider granting approval humanitarian or other special requests to enter the country. The committee will be chaired by Israeli Energy Minister and Security Cabinet member Yuval Steinitz, or a representative acting on his behalf; and composed of representatives from the Interior, Foreign Affairs, Health, Transportation, Diaspora Affairs and Aliyah and Absorption Ministries.
Meanwhile as of tomorrow, all returning citizens will be required to quarantine at designated state-sponsored hotels regardless of nation from which they traveled. This restriction will remain in effect until Sunday, 7 February 2021. Exceptions will only be considered by Health Ministry officials on an individual basis upon arrival at the Ben Gurion International Airport.
“The world has very been strongly attacked over the past two weeks by two mutations, the British and the South African,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the start of yesterday’s Cabinet meeting. “Our health system is stretched to the maximum. Therefore, we were the first in the world to close the skies,” he added.
Israel continues to be a world leader in its vaccination drive against COVID-19. Health Minister Yuli Edelstein announced this morning that nearly 2 million people in Israel have now received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine, with 130,000 people inoculated yesterday alone.
Barring “no additional surprises,” Netanyahu appealed to all citizens aged 50 and over to be vaccinated so “we will be able to gradually open the education system and our economy.” Recommendations beginning with resumption of studies by pre-school and lower grades, accompanied by 11th and 12th graders who have already been vaccinated for the purpose of taking matriculation exams, are expected to formulated next week following further discussion between the Premier with Health Minister Edelstein and Education Minister Yoav Gallant.
The possible reopening of the economy in February that Netanyahu had hoped for remains unlikely given a projected mid-January turnaround in curbing the pandemic did not transpire. Serious cases have surged among Israelis who have not yet been vaccinated, due to what officials blame on communicable foreign virus strains and violations of restrictions.
Flagrant defiance of the lockdown by ultra-Orthodox Jews, who are among the conservative Netanyahu’s supporters, have been highlighted by political rivals in questioning the lockdown’s efficacy, in possible attempts to garner opposition to him ahead of the 23 March election.
The ultra-Orthodox, whose often high-density communities make up around 15% of Israel’s population, account for some 35% of recent contagions, according to the Health Ministry.
Nationwide condemnation erupted yesterday when thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews blatantly contravened regulations yesterday to pack the Jerusalem funerals of two prominent rabbis. The incidents were particularly shocking given that both Rabbi Meshulam Dovid Soloveitchik, 99, and Rabbi Yitzchak Aryeh Shiner, 98, died of COVID-19. Paradoxically, Rabbi Scheiner was known to have called on the public to observe government edicts to curb the virus, writing in a recent letter that “each of us has a duty to do the will of God at this time and to adhere to the given instructions in order to comply with the opinion of experts, in order to avoid being harmed or bring harm to others.”
Israel Police Zion District Lt. Gen. Ofer Shomer said that it had been impossible to prevent the mass gatherings without “bloodshed,” claiming that “Any use of means to disperse the crowd would have led to mass escape and confrontations that could have ended in a stampede.”
Alternate Premier and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who is Netanyahu’s centrist coalition partner and current election competitor, charged that, “Either everyone is locked down, or everything is opened up for everyone. The days of chicanery are over.”
Gantz, whose election campaign slogan is: “Benny. The honest choice,” said during a government meeting last week that, “We are losing lives because of a politically-motivated lack of [coronavirus regulation] enforcement.”
Netanyahu denies political favoritism the ultra-Orthodox. “Rules must be followed,” he insisted, “Let it be clear: A gathering is a gathering is a gathering. It does not matter if it is by ultra-Orthodox [Jews], secular or Arabs. Unfortunately, there are gatherings on all sides and among all of these groups. This must stop immediately and making politics out of this must stop. To concentrate on the violations of one group and ignore the violations of other – they must all stop. This is the time for unity.”
Gantz threatened last week to vote down the current lockdown extension if fines for lockdown violations were not increased. To that end, the Knesset approved a measure to double fines for lockdown violators up to 10,000 shekels ($3,051).