With daily coronavirus infection rates topping 7,000 for three consecutive days, Israel on Friday tightened its nationwide lockdown amid bitter disputes over the right to protest and worship.
The private sector is now entirely closed except for a limited number of “essential industries” such as supermarkets and pharmacies.
Schools are closed and nearly all public transportation has stopped. Israelis can’t travel more than a kilometre from their homes.
Police have been deployed on major highways at the entrances to cities to enforce the travel ban.
The new restrictions will last for 16 days, until the end of the Jewish holiday period, but may be extended if there is no significant reduction in infection rates.
In a special televised address prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu urged Israelis to put their differences aside and join forces to defeat the pandemic.
“In the past two days, we heard from the experts that if we don’t take immediate and difficult steps, we will reach the edge of the abyss,” he warned. “This is a state of national emergency. We are fighting a protracted corona war, fighting for our economy and our health, and our lives.”
The Knesset parliament convened for an emergency session on Friday but failed to pass legislation approving the government’s plans to limit both public protests and prayers.
As a result, ongoing protests against Mr Netanyahu will continue outside his Jerusalem office, and synagogues will permit services on Yom Kippur, the holiest day in the Jewish calendar, which begins on Sunday evening. Indoor prayers are a major incubator for the virus and ultra-Orthodox areas have some of Israel's highest infection rates. However, religious leaders warned that they couldn't endorse closing synagogues if mass protests against Mr Netanyahu continued.
Critics of the government accused Mr Netanyahu of ordering the strictest lockdown in any developed economy in order to put an end to the weekly protests. They also suspect he will use the coronavirus crisis as an excuse to try to postpone his corruption trial which is due to start in January.
Mr Netanyahu’s supporters accused “populist” politicians of watering down restrictions and endangering lives. Finance ministry officials estimate that the cost of closing economic activity through mid-October at some €9 billion.
The decision on a full lockdown was made over the objections of the professional echelon, including the coronavirus project co-ordinator, Prof Ronni Gamzu.
“I recommended tightening the lockdown, not locking down the entire country,” said Mr Gamzu. “The economic cost is enormous, but the government has the authority to make such a decision.” Describing the cabinet’s decision-making process to his associates, Gamzu said: “I watched this nightmare and I felt nauseous.”