Israel, Palestinians face new restrictions amid virus surge

Thousands of Palestinians protested across the Palestinian territories against Israel's West Bank annexation plans. (File/AFP)
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Updated 05 July 2020

Israel, Palestinians face new restrictions amid virus surge

  • The Israeli daily Haaretz reported that more than 30,000 people were notified they must enter quarantine since Thursday
  • Israel and the Palestinian territories appeared to have contained their outbreaks, with each reporting only a few dozen new cases a day in May

TEL AVIV, Israel: Israel ordered thousands of people into quarantine after a contentious phone surveillance program resumed as Palestinians in the West Bank returned to life under lockdown after both areas saw surges in coronavirus cases.
A statement Sunday from Israel’s Health Ministry said “many” messages had been sent to Israelis following the renewed involvement of the Shin Bet domestic security agency. The Israeli daily Haaretz reported that more than 30,000 people were notified they must enter quarantine since Thursday.
After imposing strict measures early on during a first wave of infections, Israel and the Palestinian territories appeared to have contained their outbreaks, with each reporting only a few dozen new cases a day in May. But an easing of restrictions led to a steady uptick in cases over the past month.
“We are at the height of a new corona offensive. This is a very strong outbreak that is growing and spreading in the world and also here,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a meeting of his Cabinet Sunday.
“We are in a state of emergency,” he said, adding that Israel would need to further clamp down to rein in the virus.
Israel is now reporting around 1,000 new cases a day, higher than its peak during the previous wave and it is set to reimpose restrictions in response, limiting occupancy in bars, places of worship and event spaces to 50 people. It is requiring citizens wear masks and has urged more stringent social distancing.
With its contact tracing apparatus struggling to keep up with the mounting caseload, Israel last week redeployed the Shin Bet to use its sophisticated phone surveillance technology to track Israelis who have come in contact with infected people and then notify them that they must enter home quarantine. The measure is typically used to thwart attacks by tracking Palestinian militants.
The contentious tactic was used when the outbreak first emerged earlier this year, and when civil rights groups challenged it in the country’s Supreme Court, the court threatened to halt its use unless it was put under legislative oversight. The Israeli Knesset has since done so twice using temporary legislation, most recently on Wednesday.
While officials have defended the practice as a life-saving measure, civil rights groups attacked it as an assault on privacy rights. Analysts say the measure may act as a dragnet that could needlessly force some into quarantine.
Israeli media reported that of the thousands ordered into home quarantine, many Israelis complained that they struggled to appeal quarantine orders because the Health Ministry’s hotline was overwhelmed and ill-equipped to handle such a deluge.
Israel appeared to have put the pandemic behind it in May, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu proudly urging Israelis to go out, grab a coffee or a beer and “have fun.” Critics have charged that amid the dwindling cases, Israel let down its guard, reopened too quickly and failed to capitalize on its gained time to improve its contact tracing capabilities to contend with a second wave.
Netanyahu, who was largely seen as having capably handled the first wave, has suffered in public opinion polls from his approach this time around.
Since the start of the outbreak, Israel has seen more than 29,000 cases and 330 deaths. More than 17,000 people have recovered.
In the West Bank, residents have been ordered since Friday to remain at home unless they need to purchase food or medicine. Movement between cities and towns is heavily restricted. The lock down is expected to last five days.
On Sunday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas extended a state of emergency in the territory for 30 days, a measure that allows officials to impose additional virus restrictions, including extending lock downs, banning movement between cities and deploying security forces.
Palestinian authorities fear that if the outbreak spirals out of control it could overwhelm its under-resourced health care system.
In the past two weeks, Palestinian health authorities have reported more than 1,700 confirmed coronavirus cases in the West Bank city of Hebron and hundreds more in Bethlehem and Nablus.
The West Bank has reported more than 3,700 cases since the outbreak began. More than 400 have died.


Political novices drawn to rally against Netanyahu

Updated 9 min 37 sec ago

Political novices drawn to rally against Netanyahu

  • The boisterous rallies have brought out a new breed of first-time protesters — young, middle-class Israelis

JERUSALEM: In a summer of protests against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the accusations of corruption and calls for him to resign could be accompanied by another familiar refrain: “I’ve never done this before.”

The boisterous rallies have brought out a new breed of first-time protesters — young, middle-class Israelis who have little history of political activity but feel that Netanyahu’s scandal-plagued rule and his handling of the coronavirus crisis have robbed them of their futures. It is a phenomenon that could have deep implications for the country’s leaders.

“It’s not only about the COVID-19 and the government’s handling of the situation,” said Shachar Oren, a 25-year-old protester. “It’s also about the people that cannot afford to eat and cannot afford to live. I am one of those people.”

Oren is among the thousands of people who gather outside Netanyahu’s official residence in Jerusalem several times a week, calling on the longtime leader to resign. The young demonstrators have delivered a boost of momentum to a movement of older, more established protesters who have been saying Netanyahu should step down when he is on trial for corruption charges.

The loose-knit movements have joined forces to portray Netanyahu as an out-of-touch leader, with the country’s most bloated government in history and seeking hundreds of thousands of dollars of tax benefits for himself at a time when the coronavirus outbreak is raging and unemployment has soared to over 20 percent.

Many of the young protesters have lost their jobs or seen their career prospects jeopardized. They have given the protests a carnival-like atmosphere, pounding on drums and dancing in the streets in colorful costumes while chanting vitriolic slogans against the prime minister.

Netanyahu has tried to dismiss the protesters as “leftists” or “anarchists.” Erel Segal, a commentator close to the prime minister, has called the gatherings “a Woodstock of hatred.”

Despite such claims, there are no signs that any opposition parties are organizing the gatherings. Politicians have been noticeably absent from most of the protests.

Israel has a long tradition of political protest, be it peace activists, West Bank settlers or ultra-Orthodox Jews. The new wave of protesters seems to be characterized by a broader, mainstream appeal.

“The partisan issue is totally missing, and the party organizations are not present,” said Tamar Hermann, a researcher at the Israel Democracy Institute, a Jerusalem think tank and expert on protest movements.

Hermann said the protesters resemble many other protest movements around the world. “They are mostly middle class,” she said. “And they were kicked out of work.”

Oren, for instance, said he used to survive on a modest salary as a software analyst thanks to training he received in an Israeli military high-tech unit. Then he moved into tutoring — offering lessons in English, computers and chess to schoolchildren.

He said things were not easy, but he was “too busy surviving” to think about political activity. That changed when the coronavirus crisis began in March.

Oren’s business crashed.

With unemployment soaring, Netanyahu and his rival, Benny Gantz, formed a coalition with 34 Cabinet ministers, the largest government in Israel’s history. Beyond the generous salaries, these ministers, many with vague titles, enjoy perks like drivers, security guards and office space, and can hand out jobs to cronies.

A Netanyahu ally dismissed reports that people were having trouble feeding their families as “BS.”

Oren said he became “furious,” and about two months ago, he went to his first protest against the nation’s leaders. “They are there because we gave them the power and want them to help us. And they’re not doing anything,” he explained.

Oren now treks to Jerusalem from his home in the city of Kfar Saba in central Israel, about an hour away, three times a week. He is easily recognizable with his poster that says “House of Corruption,” depicting Netanyahu in a pose similar to Kevin Spacey’s nefarious “House of Cards” character, Frank Underwood.

Oren says he does not belong to any political party or any of the movements organizing the rallies, but that the diverse group of activists all want similar things. “No to the corruption, the poverty, the detachment. We’re just saying enough,” he said.

University student Stav Piltz went through a similar evolution. Living in downtown Jerusalem near Netanyahu’s residence, she quickly noticed the demonstrations in her neighborhood when they began several months ago. She talked to protesters as well as local residents at the cafe where she waitressed before she was laid off.

She said she noticed a common theme. “They feel that something is very critical now in the political climate and no one is listening to the citizens and the pain we are experiencing,” she said.

But Piltz said the spark that drew her to protest was a national strike last month by the country’s social workers.

Piltz, herself a social work student, said she has a history of social activism but has never been involved with party politics. The collection of women, coming from different religious, political, ethnic and racial backgrounds, was a powerful sight. “This is where I saw how much power we have when we are together,” she said.

The demonstrations, which have gained strength in recent weeks, are the largest sustained wave of public protests since hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets in 2011 to draw attention to the country’s high cost of living. While those protests ultimately fizzled, two of their leaders entered parliament, and one, Itzik Shmuli, is now the country’s welfare minister.

Both Piltz and Oren said they are determined to keep up their activities in the long term.

“People have nothing to lose. So it’s very easy to go demonstrate these days, especially if you’re young and you see no future here,” Piltz said.

Hermann, the political analyst, said too many Israeli youths have been “politically ignorant” and that it is a “very good sign” for the country’s democracy that people are becoming involved.

The leaders, however, may not be so pleased to face a politically aware young generation.

“They are much more difficult to be controlled while they gain political views and confidence,” she said.