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Israel increases coronavirus restrictions

What happened: Israel’s Health Ministry yesterday issued strict public guidance to deal with the Coronavirus outbreak telling people not to leave their home except when absolutely necessary (groceries, pharmacies) and banning gatherings at beaches, parks and other public spaces. In a speech last night, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged the public to simply stay at home, indicating that the guidelines may soon be made mandatory and strictly enforced.

  • As of this morning there are 427 Coronavirus cases in Israel. Authorities were angered by many Israelis using the quarantine guidelines to go to the beach and parks. Police broke up a wedding with 150 guests in the central town of Bet Shemesh last night, where one attendee was known to have broken quarantine protocol.
  • Netanyahu said: “Many people do not comprehend the magnitude of the danger. The requirement to quarantine is not up for negotiation.”
  • Authorities promised that virus checks would rise to 5000 per day, with new drive-through testing centres to be opened in Tel Aviv and other cities.
  • The first “quarantine hotel” was inaugurated on the Tel Aviv seashore yesterday, under the control and management of the Israel Defence Forces. The hotel will house Coronavirus patients exhibiting mild symptoms, in an effort to free up hospital beds. Another such hotel will be opened in Jerusalem.
  • The government approved the use of a cellphone tracking tool developed by the Shin Bet internal security service to track infected citizens and others who may have come into close contact with them in the past two weeks. According to some reports authorities have already begun using the tool despite the lack of parliamentary approval and oversight.

Context: For several weeks Israel has been taking increasing measures to combat the outbreak.

  • Social distancing rules have steadily been ramped up and now restrict gatherings of more than five people in one space. Police in protective clothing have been locating and arresting individuals who have broken quarantine.
  • In the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, 44 known Coronavirus cases have been identified so far, all but four of the them in the Bethlehem district (which remains under full closure). The PA has had a state of emergency in place for two weeks and is closely cooperating with the IDF on its response.
  • In the Gaza Strip there are, as yet, no known cases of the virus. Hamas authorities have begun building separate quarantine facilities for those infected in future, and have required any returnees from abroad to self-isolate at home. Israel has moved 200 testing kits into Gaza to help efforts.
  • Lebanon has moved to a near total shutdown, with all non-essential businesses shut. Riots erupted last night at two prisons, with inmates demanding to be released due to conditions. The country has 120 confirmed cases, with three deaths resulting from the pandemic.
  • Jordan has declared a state of emergency and has effectively moved the country into total lockdown as of today. Gatherings of more than 10 people are banned, and only shops providing essential services (medicine, food) remain open. The country has 33 confirmed Coronavirus cases.
  • In Egypt, as of earlier this week 166 Coronavirus cases have been reported, with 4 deaths, though analysts contend the real number is far higher – with the government revoking the license of The Guardian correspondent for reporting as such. Egypt has taken less stringent measures than other countries, and will only be halting international air travel tomorrow.

Looking ahead: The Israeli public expects a full lockdown in the coming days, with officials warning of the grave consequences of not following quarantine orders. The Director General of the Health Ministry, Moshe Bar Siman-Tov, said last night that thousands of Israelis would – under certain scenarios – die from the outbreak of the virus. Netanyahu also raised the alarm, preparing the public for a long period of disruption: “This is a huge crisis and I am beseeching everybody to do everything possible so we stand up to the challenge. The peak is still ahead of us. We will not give up and will continue to fight the virus until we beat it.”