Coronavirus cases soar as Israel prepares tighter measures

Director General Michael Halberthal, right, and staff in the underground parking of Rambam Health Care Campus, which has been transformed into a COVID intensive care facility, Haifa, Sept. 23, 2020. (AFP)
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Updated 23 September 2020

Coronavirus cases soar as Israel prepares tighter measures

  • Israel, a country of some 9 million people, now has one of the world’s highest rates of coronavirus on a per capita basis
  • The government reopened the economy too quickly, and a new outbreak has quickly spread throughout the summer

JERUSALEM: Israel on Wednesday reported a new record level of daily cases of the coronavirus, shortly before government officials were to meet to discuss tightening a new nationwide lockdown.
The Health Ministry reported 6,861 new cases on Wednesday as a raging outbreak showed no signs of slowing. Israel, a country of some 9 million people, now has one of the world’s highest rates of coronavirus on a per capita basis, and health officials say hospitals are quickly approaching capacity.
The government last week imposed a nationwide lockdown that closed schools, shopping malls, hotels and restaurants. The coronavirus Cabinet was to meet later in the day to discuss further tightening the restrictions.
Ahead of the meeting, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that in light of the rapid spread of the virus, he would seek a “a broad general closure and significant tightening of restrictions immediately,” including the closure of large parts of the economy, his office said.
Israel won international praise for its handling of the outbreak last spring, moving quickly to seal its borders and impose a lockdown that appeared to contain the virus. But the government reopened the economy too quickly, and a new outbreak has quickly spread throughout the summer. The economy, meanwhile, has not recovered from a serious downturn caused by the first lockdown, and the new lockdown has led to a new wave of layoffs.
A new poll released Wednesday by the Israel Democracy Institute, a respected think tank, found that only 27% of Israelis trust Netanyahu to lead the country’s effort against COVID-19. That compares with 57.5% who trusted him in early April. The survey interviewed 754 adults and had a margin of error of 3.7 percentage points.
The Health Ministry has instructed hospitals to delay non-essential surgeries and to open additional coronavirus wards as the number of serious cases continues to rise.
Beyond further limiting economic activity, officials have been discussing shuttering synagogues and clamping down on protests — both of which risk sparking a public backlash.
The limits would come at a time when Israeli Jews are celebrating the High Holidays and when weekly demonstrations have been held against Netanyahu and his handling of the coronavirus crisis.
The ongoing protests have bitterly divided the country, with religious leaders saying their public is being unfairly targeted by restrictions on public prayer while Netanyahu’s opponents continue to hold large public demonstration. Demonstrators say Netanyahu’s supporters are using the outbreak as an excuse to muzzle their democratic right to protest.
Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch said restrictions would have to be tightened in the near future.
“Educational institutions will be closed, the economy will be limited to essential work, synagogues will have no indoor prayers, with arrangements for outdoor prayer, and demonstrations will be allowed without protesters traveling between cities,” he told Channel 12 TV. “Everyone will demonstrate where he wants, will pray where he wants and will stay at home. That is what is required now.”


US officials: Iran sent emails intimidating American voters

Updated 22 October 2020

US officials: Iran sent emails intimidating American voters

  • Intelligence director: “These actions are desperate attempts by desperate adversaries”

WASHINGTON: US officials accused Iran on Wednesday of being behind a flurry of emails sent to Democratic voters in multiple battleground states that appeared to be aimed at intimidating them into voting for President Donald Trump.
The announcement at a rare, hastily called news conference just two weeks before the election underscored the concern within the US government about efforts by foreign countries to spread false information meant to suppress voter turnout and undermine American confidence in the vote.
The activities attributed to Iran would mark a significant escalation for a nation that some cybersecurity experts regard as a second-rate player in online espionage, with the announcement coming as most public discussion surrounding election interference has centered on Russia, which hacked Democratic emails during the 2016 election, and China, a Trump administration adversary.
“These actions are desperate attempts by desperate adversaries,” said John Ratcliffe, the government’s top intelligence official, who, along with FBI Director Chris Wray, insisted the US would impose costs on any foreign countries that interfere in the 2020 US election and that the integrity of the election is still sound.
“You should be confident that your vote counts,” Wray said. “Early, unverified claims to the contrary should be viewed with a healthy dose of skepticism.”
Wray and Ratcliffe did not describe the emails linked to Iran, but officials familiar with the matter said the US has linked Tehran to messages sent to Democratic voters in at least four battleground states that falsely purported to be from the neo-fascist group Proud Boys and that warned “we will come after you” if the recipients didn’t vote for Trump.
The officials also said Iran and Russia had obtained voter registration data, though such data is considered easily, publicly accessible. Tehran used the information to send out the spoofed emails, which were sent to voters in states including Pennsylvania and Florida.
Ratcliffe said the spoofed emails were intended to hurt Trump, though he did not elaborate on how. An intelligence assessment released in August said: “Iran seeks to undermine US democratic institutions, President Trump, and to divide the country in advance of the 2020 elections. Iran’s efforts along these lines probably will focus on online influence, such as spreading disinformation on social media and recirculating anti-US content.”
Trump, speaking at a rally in North Carolina, made no reference to the press conference but repeated a familiar campaign assertion that Iran is opposed to his reelection. He promised that if he wins another term he will swiftly reach a new accord with Iran over its nuclear program.
“Iran doesn’t want to let me win. China doesn’t want to let me win,” Trump said. “The first call I’ll get after we win, the first call I’ll get will be from Iran saying let’s make a deal.”
Both Russia and Iran also obtained voter registration information, though such data is considered easily, publicly accessible. Tehran used the information to send out the spoofed emails, which were sent to voters in states including Pennsylvania and Florida.
Asked about the emails during an online forum Wednesday, Pennsylvania Secretary of State Kathy Boockvar said she lacked specific information. “I am aware that they were sent to voters in multiple swing states and we are working closely with the attorney general on these types of things and others,” she said.
While state-backed Russian hackers are known to have infiltrated US election infrastructure in 2016, there is no evidence that Iran has ever done so.
The voter intimidation operation apparently used email addresses obtained from state voter registration lists, which include party affiliation and home addresses and can include email addresses and phone numbers. Those addresses were then used in an apparently widespread targeted spamming operation. The senders claimed they would know which candidate the recipient was voting for in the Nov. 3 election, for which early voting is ongoing.
Federal officials have long warned about the possibility of this type of operation, as such registration lists are not difficult to obtain.
“These emails are meant to intimidate and undermine American voters’ confidence in our elections,” Christopher Krebs, the top election security official at the Department of Homeland Security, tweeted Tuesday night after reports of the emails first surfaced.