Israel’s Coronavirus Lockdown Fuels Protests, Violence and Confusion

Israel’s Coronavirus Lockdown Fuels Protests, Violence and Confusion

Israel’s Coronavirus Lockdown Fuels Protests, Violence and Confusion

Israel’s Coronavirus Lockdown Fuels Protests, Violence and Confusion

JERUSALEM — Fractured by internal political conflicts, confusing instructions and a lack of public trust in the government, Israel seems to be fraying further under a second national lockdown as the country struggles to cope with a surge in coronavirus cases and deaths that, relative to the size of the population, are among the worst in the world.

With new daily cases of the coronavirus reaching up to 9,000 recently, here are some of the main factors contributing to the sense of chaos and loss of control.

For months, tens of thousands of demonstrators have been calling for the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is standing trial on corruption charges and has been the focus of blame for many Israelis over the country’s handling of the pandemic. Mr. Netanyahu, a polarizing conservative, has portrayed the protesters as left-wing anarchists and has accused them, without evidence, of spreading the virus in mass gatherings outside his Jerusalem residence.

After coronavirus regulations were tightened late last month, the government approved temporary restrictions on the demonstrations, confining protests to groups of up to 20 people wearing masks, standing two meters apart, and gathering no farther than a kilometer, or just over half a mile, from their homes.

On Sunday, the police said that they had detained 38 protesters in the Tel Aviv area overnight and that many had been fined for offenses such as not wearing masks, blocking roads or breaching social distancing orders.

Ron Huldai, the 76-year-old mayor of Tel Aviv, who had joined the city’s main protest, went home with a bloodied arm. The government had placed the police in an “impossible position” and turned them into “a political tool,” Mr. Huldai said on Israeli television, adding that the scene had been calm and orderly until officers had moved in with force.

Preventing large gatherings, especially in Israel’s crowded ultra-Orthodox areas, was always going to be a challenge during the Jewish High Holy Days, which began on Sept. 18 and extend until Oct. 11. Dr. Ronni Gamzu, Israel’s coronavirus czar, said last week that 40 percent of those testing positive came from the ultra-Orthodox community, even though it makes up only about 13 percent of the population.

Even so, some Hasidic sects insisted on holding indoor prayers and large gatherings to celebrate Sukkot, the Jewish harvest holiday. Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, 92, a leading ultra-Orthodox authority, tested positive for the virus last week. The police said that they had closed at least 22 synagogues that were operating illegally over the weekend.

Stormy confrontations broke out on Sunday in some ultra-Orthodox areas. In the West Bank settlement of Beitar Illit, police officers were shown on video throwing a bucket at and then aggressively dragging away a boy who was accused of throwing a chunk of concrete at a police vehicle. The police said they would investigate the officers’ conduct.

In the cities of Bnei Brak and Jerusalem, crowds clashed with the police overnight. Two officers were wounded when objects were thrown at them, the police said on Monday. One rabbi of an extremist ultra-Orthodox branch told his followers not to fear the authorities and to perform all the usual holiday customs.

In a less confrontational scene — which drew much online criticism — police officers received a blessing from a Hasidic rabbi after they arrived to ensure compliance with the lockdown.

Even Israelis who have tried to adhere to the regulations have found them confusing. Pressured by interest groups, a largely dysfunctional governing coalition made changes in the dead of night, just before the lockdown took effect in September: A 500-meter limit on movement was extended to 1,000 meters (albeit with a copious list of exceptions), and Israelis were told that they could travel abroad but only with tickets purchased before the lockdown. And no one was given authority to enforce the flight rules.

The temporary huts traditionally erected for Sukkot — a weeklong Jewish holiday that comes five days after Yom Kippur — were only to be used by members of the same household. But a last-minute change allowed huts with two of their four sides left open to be considered as outdoor space, allowing groups of up to 20 to enter.

The large weddings that were blamed for a surge of infections among Israel’s Arab minority over the summer have subsided, after Arab mayors acted to enforce restrictions on large gatherings. There has been a significant decline in new cases among Arab citizens of Israel, part of a broader downward trend in the rate of new infections in the general population, except in the ultra-Orthodox community, according to Eran Segal, a scientist at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel.

On Sunday however, Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List of predominantly Arab parties and a prominent opposition figure, said he had tested positive for the virus.

Just a month ago, Arabs, who make up a fifth of the Israeli population, accounted for about 30 percent of newly infected people. They now only make up about 10 percent of that infection figure, said Aiman Saif, an official working on the response to the virus in the Arab community.

Mr. Saif, who called the numbers “encouraging,” attributed the decrease to the general lockdown measures that, among other things, had closed schools.

Israel’s governing coalition, led by Mr. Netanyahu in partnership with his defense minister and prime-minister-in-waiting, Benny Gantz, a centrist rival, was formed in May to respond to the pandemic after months of political stalemate.

But the government is widely considered a failure. Political differences have prevented a budget from being passed for 2020, and if a deadline in late December is not met, the government will automatically fall and Israelis will be heading back to the polls for the fourth time in two years.

The lockdown has only exacerbated the tensions and deepened cracks in the coalition. Asaf Zamir, the tourism minister from Mr. Gantz’s party, resigned on Friday, citing the crackdown on the protests and accusing Mr. Netanyahu of putting his personal interests ahead of the country’s.

In a stinging Facebook post, Mr. Zamir wrote that he was unable to serve in a government where he did not “have a shred of trust in the person standing at its head.”

“I fear for the country,” he said. “Fear that it is on the edge of absolute rupture.”

Adam Rasgon contributed reporting.




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