Schools are closed for at least the next five weeks, people have been asked to work from home, public transportation is running on a reduced schedule and the tourism industry is essentially shuttered due to travel restrictions in Israel.
With no end in sight to restrictions placed on the country to stop to spread the coronavirus, Prime Minister Netanyahu has ordered Israelis to voluntarily stay home and only go outside when it is a necessity. Other than a 50 minutes bike-ride, where I had no human contact, I was inside all day yesterday. From my balcony, the streets are mostly empty.
Though the government hasn’t yet imposed fines for violating any of these restrictions, it has approved wide ranging and invasive measures, including tracking Israelis on their cellphones to locate their whereabouts and any people with who they have come in contact.
With Israel coming just short of a complete shutdown such as was imposed in Italy, the IDF was preparing to enforce curfews and lockdowns should the situation deteriorate.
The phone surveillance measures, which are used by Israel’s FBI, the Shin Bet, in counterterrorism, have been met with criticism in Israel. The Shin Bet will retroactively track the movements of coronavirus patients and relay the information to the Health Ministry. Then the Ministry of Health will contact anyone who came into contact with the patient, based on their locations, and send them into quarantine.
The government recognized the moves as “extreme” but justified. Of course, they are justified. Reports say that if China has just alerted the world three weeks earlier 95% of the present cases would not have happened. Furthermore, Israel is too small of a country with a very vocal public for the government to abuse this power. Don’t forget, we are the army. There is no army and the people, just the people.
“I can assure you all unequivocally: There isn’t and won’t be a ‘Big Brother’ in the State of Israel, even in the framework of an extreme event like what we are dealing with now,” Transportation Minister Betzalel Smotrich said.
Attorney Avner Pinchuk, of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel, said he fears “we will also lose our basic values as a free and democratic society.”
Tehilla Altshuler Shwartz, a senior fellow at the Israel Democracy Institute, noted the slippery slope of this decision.
“This argument could be used in the future for anything, an economic crisis, an educational crisis,” she said.
As of Wednesday, more than 400 Israelis had been diagnosed with coronavirus, no one has died.
To avert an outbreak of the virus, Israel has progressively introduced drastic restrictions. In just the last two weeks the government has banned gatherings of more than 5,000 reducing the number to 2,000 then quickly to 100 during the weekend. By Saturday night, Netanyahu announced that only 10 people could congregate in any given location.
By Tuesday, however, new guidelines were issued aiming to restrict gatherings of any kind including home visits between friends. Netanyahu said families should stay home unless it is an emergency.
However, the ultra-Orthodox community remains a law unto itself. The day after Netanyahu announced the closure of schools, ultra-Orthodox schools and seminaries for adults were open in flagrant violation of the order. Then after the limit was reduced to 10 people in a public place, some 150 ultra-Orthodox Jews defied the orders and attended a wedding in Beit Shemesh. Videos of the guests dancing and singing at the wedding went viral on social media and the news.
Police did not disperse the gathering and arrested just one man who was supposedly infected saying he had “endangered the public and their health.”
What is more ironic is that the man leading the Health Ministry is Yaakov Litzman, leader of the United Torah Judaism party—and ultra orthodox Jew, and yet many of his followers will not honor the government restrictions, putting their whole community in peril.
Meanwhile, Palestinians are also implementing tough restrictions. The border with Israel is closed, and with 44 known cases of the coronavirus, mostly in the Bethlehem area, the Palestinian Authority moved to lockdown residents in the region in hopes of containing what would be a “catastrophe” in case of an outbreak.
“I don’t want to think of such a scenario, even though we can’t rule it out,” a senior official in the Health Ministry said. “We won’t be able to deal with the crisis alone. We will need assistance from Israel and other international parties. We are already coordinating on a daily basis with Israel to prevent the spread of the virus.”
Meanwhile the Gaza Strip, which is geographically separated from the rest of the Palestinian territories and has a strict border crossing, has zero known cases of the contagious virus. Hamas, the terror group that rules in the coastal enclave, has begun building quarantine facilities in Gaza in the event of an outbreak.