Coronavirus in Israel: Shin Bet Says They Have Identified Over 500 Patients

El Al suspends flights ■ Coronavirus surveillance: Shin Bet says it correctly predicted infection in 500 people ■ Places of worship closed ■ Unemployment at 21%

A woman wearing a masks walks outside the walls of the Old City of Jerusalem, March 24, 2020.
Ohad Zwigenberg

Update: Over 3,000 confirmed cases as death toll rises to ten

As the highly contagious coronavirus spreads around the world, Israel and the Palestinians struggle to contain a local outbreak that has virtually halted daily life and led to tens of thousands of people entering quarantine.

■ 3,035 Israelis have so far tested positive for the coronavirus, with the vast majority of cases mild and 79 recoveries. Ten patients have died and 49 are in serious condition.

■ In the West Bank, 64 cases have been diagnosed so far, and 17 have recovered, the majority of them in Bethlehem. One woman in her 60s died. The Palestinian prime minister ordered a lockdown as of Sunday night. In Gaza, nine cases were diagnosed, the first two after returning from Pakistan, while seven came down with the virus after coming in contact with them. 

■ Israel's government approved emergency measures to limit movement of citizens and trade, shuttering cultural and recreational establishments as well as schools and universities and banning gatherings. Read the complete guide to the lockdown

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 71: A tale of two crises: Coronavirus vs. Constitution

■ For information on the Health Ministry's app that tracks contact with confirmed coronavirus patients, click here. For more information on the Health Ministry's official website on the corovavirus outbreak, click here.

UPDATES

THURSDAY

10:04 P.M. How #coronavirus conspiracy theories went viral, and the Israeli connection

The coronavirus’ genetic code is very similar to the SARS virus yet there is still a small difference between them. Computer simulations showed that these genetic changes do not make the novel coronavirus more infectious.

The researchers also reason that “if someone were seeking to engineer a new coronavirus as a pathogen, they would have constructed it from the backbone of a virus known to cause illness,” which is not true of COVID-19. Nature, it appears, is smarter, as the virus found a way to mutate in a more effective way.

I also contacted an Israeli expert for his opinion. “Do you really think that someone would develop a virus to kill people 70 and older?” said the expert, who asked not to be named. (Yossi Melman)

>> Read the full report here

9:32 P.M. El Al suspends commercial flights

El Al announced Thursday it was temporarily suspending all passenger flights to and from Israel due to the coronavirus, following an “assessment of the current and future situation.”

Flights are set to cease at midnight on March 27. The company’s final flights to Ben-Gurion airport on Thursday evening are set to fly as scheduled from New York, Paris, London and Toronto, along with "rescue flights" from Delhi, India and San Jose, Costa Rica. (Allison Kaplan Sommer)

>> Read the full report here

9:21 P.M. Number of total cases in Israel increases to 2,693

Twenty-seven new cases were reported in Israel, bringing the total to 2,693, a 14 percent increase in the last 24 hours. According to the Health Ministry, 46 patients are in severe condition. 

7:49 P.M. Mossad procures coronavirus test reagents

The Mossad delivered to Israel 400,000 coronavirus test reagents. Last week, it was reported that the Mossad had brought testing kits to Israel but that swabs were missing. (Noa Landau)

7:22 P.M. Security service releases figures on coronavirus tracking

The Shin Bet security service said in a statement that since it began its operation to track confirmed and potential coronavirus patients, more than 500 people tested positive for the virus after they had been ordered into quarantine. There are currently over 60,000 people under mandatory quarantine in Israel. 

"If these residents had not been quickly identified and isolated, they surely would have unwittingly infected many more," the statement read.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu issued emergency regulations last week allowing digital monitoring of coronavirus patients’ cellphones. The Shin Bet is tracking the routes that patients have taken outside their homes to identify people who they had gotten close to and order them to self-quarantine.

Israel is the only country in the world that is using a secret service agency to track its own population as part of its efforts to curb the virus. Doctors also warned against the method, saying it does not collect relevant or accurate information. (Yaniv Kubovich)

>> Coronavirus surveillance explained: Who's tracking you and what happens with the data

6:58 P.M. One in five Israelis unemployed

Since the beginning of March, 723,028 Israeli citizens and residents have filed for unemployment benefits. Over 90 percent of them are on unpaid leave due to coronavirus. The unemployment rate currently stands at 21.2%. (Lee Yaron)

6:49 P.M. Middle East countries intensify restrictions

Border policemen evacuate a store in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Me'a She'arim, Jerusalem, March 24, 2020
Ohad Zwigenberg

Iraq and Lebanon extended government-imposed restrictions on movement for two more weeks.

In Saudi Arabia, authorities announced a total lockdown on the capital, Riyadh, and Islam's two holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, in addition to a nationwide curfew.

In the United Arab Emirates, authorities announced an overnight weekend lockdown and used drones to tell residents to stay home.

In Iran, which is facing the worst outbreak in the region, the death toll rose to 2,234 on Thursday with 157 new fatalities, according to the health ministry. There are more than 29,000 confirmed cases in Iran, where authorities have advised people to stay home but refrained from imposing nationwide movement restrictions or curfews as seen elsewhere.

Jordan, which has recorded 172 infections, announced on Thursday that anyone who flouts its nightly curfew will be fined up to 500 dinars (around $700). Repeat offenders could face up to a year's imprisonment. Only essential shops are allowed to operate in the kingdom. (Reuters)

6:27 P.M. U.S. reports 68,440 coronavirus cases, 994 deaths

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) on Thursday reported 68,440 coronavirus cases, an increase of 13,987 cases from its previous count, and said the death toll had risen by 257 to 994. (Reuters)

5:48 P.M. Coronavirus is replacing war as the Middle East’s chief misery | Opinion

Economists often use what’s called a misery index to measure how the average citizen is doing economically. Usually it’s calculated based on the rates of unemployment and inflation.

In today’s Middle East the two more relevant variables for a misery index are petroleum prices and coronavirus cases.

Oddly, that index would show that things are not so bad right. The first number is truly a misery: The price of oil is a dismally low $26 per OPEC barrel as of early Thursday. But the second number is cause for relative relief. Not counting two outliers – Israel (a developed economy) and Iran (an acknowledged disaster area that got hit early and hard) – the number of confirmed coronavirus cases is a surprisingly modest 4,460 for the region, or just 39.5 per million people. (David Rosenberg)

Muslim worshippers pray near a closed gate of the compound housing Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem's Old City, March 23, 2020.
AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS

>> Read the full opinion here

5:13 P.M. Jerusalem police enforcing new regulations

Police officers in Jerusalem began enforcing stricter social distancing regulations, despite an earlier announcement that the police won't levy fines in the coming days except in cases of organized gatherings or mandatory quarantine violations. 

In addition, officers at roadblocks requested proof that drivers were essential workers, despite guidelines still allowing all workers to commute to work. (Josh Breiner)

4:58 P.M. WHO transfers 1,000 testing kits to Gaza

One thousand coronavirus testing kits donated by the World Health Organization were transferred to the Gaza Strip via the Erez crossing, in coordination with the Israeli military. (Hagar Shezaf)

4:28 P.M. Netanyahu presents doomsday coronavirus scenario, but his ministries don't operate by it

The defense establishment has set up the equivalent of a war room, after the Health Ministry agreed to transfer to it the responsibility for acquiring this material overseas. However, Israel is competing in a wild global market, in which large, spendthrift players such as the U.S. and the Gulf States are beating it, as they are willing to pay any price for the needed equipment. In many cases, Israeli agents have found that deals that were agreed on were broken, with the equipment sold to others.

Israel has 3,000 respirators at its disposal, with half of these currently in use. Now there is a search for more machines everywhere, in the hope that the number of them available grows before the anticipated surge in the number of patients. The defense establishment has several hundred respirators, with efforts now underway to bring these into use. A few more may be collected from unknown sources abroad, but there is no way yet of producing these locally. (Amos Harel and Or Kashti)

>> Read the full story here

4:09 P.M. Petition seeks phone calls for isolated prisoners

Six Israeli and Palestinian human rights organizations submitted an urgent petition to the High Court to allow Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails to call their family members. The petition was filed in light of the suspension of prison visits as part of efforts to curb the spread of coronavirus.

The appeal raised concerns that complete isolation may enable the violation of prisoners' rights without recourse. It also highlighted the importance of minors having contact with their families.

The petition was joined by the wife of a Palestinian prisoner with a severe illness and the father of a 15-year-old detainee. (Netael Bandel)

3:32 P.M. Israel opens nuclear bunker

A man passes food through a hole in the closed front door of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre amid coronavirus restrictions in Jerusalem's Old City  March 26, 2020
AMMAR AWAD/ REUTERS

The Israeli government has opened up a war bunker in the Jerusalem hills to help coordinate its campaign against the spread of the coronavirus.

The bunker, called the "National Management Centre", was built more than a decade ago because of concern about Iran's nuclear program and missile exchanges with Hezbollah or Hamas.

According to Israeli officials, it includes living quarters and command facilities and can be accessed from the government complex in Jerusalem and the western foothills leading to Tel Aviv.

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett appeared to play down the move, telling an Israel Radio reporter during a news conference that the bunker "is not so relevant [to the crisis]. We are not under a missile attack that would require us to be underground."

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz had earlier joked in an interview with Tel Aviv radio station 102 FM that the bunker had limited usefulness now as "it protects from bombs, but not from microbes". (Reuters)

2:17 P.M. Eight dead in Israel, cases rise to 2,666

An 83-year-old resident of Bnei Brak died after being hospitalized for 10 days. The total number of cases now stands at 2,666.  According to the Health Ministry, 68 people have recovered so far and 39 patients are in severe condition. 

1:20 P.M. Police announce random checkpoints in cities

Israel Police have announced that as of Thursday morning, thousands of officers have been deployed across the country to enforce the new coronavirus restrictions. According to a police statement, random temporary checkpoints will be set up at the entrances and exits of cities, as well as within the cities themselves. 

In addition, police will patrol public parks, beaches and shops in neighborhoods and commercial centers. Police will also continue to conduct random visits to the homes of citizens who are required to stay in home quarantine. 

The police emphasized that questions regarding the new restrictions should be directed to the 110 hotline and not to the emergency line 100. (Josh Breiner)

1:49 P.M. Sixth coronavirus patient in Israel dies

A 91-year-old woman hospitalized in central Israel died after several days of being sedated and intubated, the Wolfson Medical Center in Holon said. (Bar Peleg)

12:30 P.M. Head of National Security Council: Israel has no 'exit strategy' from current crisis

The Head of Israel's National Security Council Meir Ben-Shabbat said Israel has no "exit strategy" from the current coronavirus crisis forcing the country to a near-complete lockdown.

Speaking before the Knesset committee charged with overseeing the efforts to combat the virus, Ben-Shabbar said: "We haven't put an exit strategy together at this stage, we have to be honest. We are discussing things, thinking about solutions, we have ideas, direction, but no strategy."

Jewish prayer held outside a synagogue in Ofakim, Israel, March 26, 2020.
Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Ben-Shabbat also acknowledged criticism from MK Ofer Shelah of an alleged lack of clarity in the communicating coronavirus restrictions to the Israeli public and noted there is no set format for how a government should manage such crises. (Jonathan Lis)

11:03 A.M. Israel prepares to use unapproved medications to treat coronavirus

Israel's Health Ministry is instructing medical teams in hospitals and HMOs to prepare for he possible use of medications that have yet to be approved to treat coronavirus patients.

A directive is calling on hospital directors to stockpile medications that are at the research level and haven't received full approval. (Ido Efrati)

9:30 A.M. Israel prepares to intubate 5,000 patients, but has less than 1,500 respirators left

A report prepared for the Knesset committee charged with overseeing efforts to contain the coronavirus revealed Israel has only 1,437 available respirators as the country faces a constant increase in patients.

With over 700 are already in use, Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman Tov told the committee that another 70 machines have been ordered from the private medical system, as well as 900-800 machines from the IDF. He added that there would eventually be 2,864 machines available, but did not explain where they would come from. 

Israel is preparing to be able to intubate 5,000 patients at the same time, Bar Siman Tov said, adding that so long as a peak of patients requiring the aid of a respirator is delayed, Israel will have the time to prepare accordingly. (Jonathan Lis)

9:20 A.M. West Bank villagers enter isolation after Palestinian woman dies from coronavirus

All residents of the Palestinian village of Bidu in the Jerusalem area have entered home isolation after a Palestinian woman has passed away because of coronavirus. All those who have been in contact with the woman have also been ordered into isolation at the hospital in the village of Turmus Ayya in the central-northern West Bank. So far, the official number of Palestinians who tested positive for coronavirus is 64. (Jack Khoury)

8:40 A.M. Number of Israelis who tested positive for coronavirus nears 2,500

The Israeli Health Ministry has released updated data about the coronavirus situation in Israel. The overall number of cases has topped 2,495 with 41 in a severe condition. Nearly 150,000 have been or remain in home isolation. Nearly 70 are in a medium condition and the rest are mild cases.

Five patients have died since the beginning of the crisis. (Ido Efrati)

6:30 A.M. Thousands of coronavirus testing kits, masks delivered to the West Bank 

More than 3,000 coronavirus testing kits and 50,000 protective masks for doctors and medical staff were donated by the World Health Organization to the Palestinian Authority on Wednesday, in coordination with the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories. (Jack Khoury)

6:15 A.M. Seven more Gazans test positive for coronavirus, bringing total to nine 

The total number of coronavirus cases in the Gaza Strip rose to nine after seven security servicemen that were in direct contact with the first two patients who returned from Pakistan tested positive Thursday overnight, according to sources in the Gaza health system. 

The seven new patients are in a light condition, and were in isolation prior to testing positive and will continue to be isolated, as well as the two other patients, say the sources. (Jack Khoury)

Wednesday

11:45 P.M. Pentagon orders halt overseas movement for U.S. military over coronavirus

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper has issued a stop movement order to the U.S. military halting travel and movement abroad for up to 60 days in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus through the ranks, the Pentagon chief told Reuters on Wednesday.

The measure is by far the Defense Department's most sweeping to date and will affect forces around the world. (Reuters)

>> Read full report here

11:35 P.M. France pulls out military forces in Iraq amid coronavirus demands

France is pulling out its military forces from Iraq as French forces are increasingly called upon to help fight the coronavirus at home.

The chief of staff of the French armed forces said in a statement Wednesday night that France is suspending its anti-terrorism training operations in Iraq and also bringing home its Iraq-based troops involved in the U.S.-led coalition against the Islamic State group. (The Associated Press)

11:30 P.M. At Jerusalem Nursing Home Where Two Residents Died, Coronavirus and Frustration Spread

“The Health Ministry keeps saying, ‘Protect Grandma and Grandpa,’ so why aren’t they protecting us? Do they want us all to get infected?” asks Esther Koby, a resident of the Migdal Nofim assisted living residence in Jerusalem, which has become a coronavirus hotspot.

Migdal Nofim was the site of one of the first coronavirus outbreaks in Jerusalem, after an employee infected several residents and staff members.

Two residents have died, and the infection has spread, with a total of six residents, six staff members and another three foreign nursing aids infected.

Most of the patients who took ill were under nursing home care. (Nir Hasson)

>> Read full report here 

11:25 P.M. Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre closes amid coronavirus fears

Jerusalem's Church of the Holy Sepulchre, revered in Christian tradition as the site of Jesus's crucifixion and burial, was closed on Wednesday as a precaution against the coronavirus.

The closure, initially for a week, followed a meeting between Israeli police and church leaders, said Wadie Abu Nassar, spokesperson of the Assembly of Catholic Ordinaries of the Holy Land, after the Israeli government announced tighter restrictions to curb the spread of the virus.  

"The initial understanding is that this order is valid for one week, although nobody knows how long this crisis will take," he said. Adeeb Joudeh, a Palestinian whose family holds one of the keys to the church, confirmed the decision on Facebook. (Reuters)

11:20 P.M. Saudi King says G20 exceptional summit to unite coronavirus efforts

Saudi Arabia's King Salman said on Wednesday that as the world confronts the new coronavirus, the Group of 20 major economies will convene in an exceptional summit to come up with initiatives to unite the efforts to combat the pandemic.

"As the world confronts the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges to healthcare systems and the global economy, we convene this extraordinary G20 summit to unite efforts towards a global response," the king said on Twitter.

The kingdom, which holds the G20 presidency this year, will host G20 leaders by video-conference on Thursday amid criticism that the group has been slow to respond to the global crisis. (Reuters)

10:24 P.M. Police breaks up gathering in Jerusalem

The police arrested and fined three people in an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem for holding a gathering despite lockdown. 

10: 20 P.M. Palestinian Authority receives testing kits from WHO

Three thousand coronavirus testing kits and 50 thousand face masks donated by the World Health Organization were transferred to the West Bank in coordination with the Israeli army. (Yaniv Kubovich)

9:30 P.M. Knesset lawmaker goes into quarantine

Kahol Lavan legislator Boaz Toporovsky was ordered into isolation after being in the vicinity of a confirmed patient. He is the 9th lawmaker to be quarantined since the start of the outbreak in Israel. (Jonathan Lis)

8:50 P.M. Netanyahu warns of imminent curfew

In a televised address, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned that unless a significant reduction in the spread of coronavirus is seen in Israel, the country will soon go on "full lockdown." 

He stressed that self-discipline is imperative, and that “We must stay at home. Stay home, and stay alive. Everyone must obey.”

He promised to release a financial aid package for businesses in the coming days.

8:29 P.M. Travelers from the United States, France, Spain and Italy will be tested upon arrival

Defense Minister Naftali Bennet said that starting Saturday, the army will be responsible for new regulations concerning people returning from abroad.

According to new regulations, travelers returning from the United States, Italy, Spain and France will be isolated in a quarantine center upon their arrival. They will be immediately tested for the virus and if negative, will be released to complete a 14-day home quarantine. Those who will test positive may have to stay in the quarantine center. Results will not take longer than 48 hours, according to a defense ministry statement.

Travelers returning from all other countries will be required to self-isolate for 14 days at home. 

8:20 P.M. Number of confirmed cases in Israel rises to 2,369

The Health Ministry said that 2,369 people have been diagnosed with the coronavirus in Israel as of Wednesday evening, a 22 percent increase in one day. Five patients have died, 39 are in serious condition and 64 have recovered. 

8:10 P.M. Israeli president: We shall overcome

In a televised address to the nation, President Reuven Rivlin said new lockdown regulations are "for our own safety and for the safety of our families." 

Rivlin added: "In these trying times, we must learn to obey… even if we think these orders are wrong. We must obey and do what’s demanded of us ... We shall overcome."

8:04 P.M. In America’s only Orthodox town, coronavirus poses unique challenge for insular Jewish community

As the coronavirus outbreak continues to strike around the world, Orthodox communities in the United States have made unprecedented and dramatic steps to try to slow the rate of infection.

Orthodox groups and prominent rabbis have issued notices urging people to comply with the social distancing guidelines issued by authorities. They have even gone as far as to call for people to cancel large Passover gatherings and reduce the holiday preparations to “essential” things only.

Synagogues, religious schools and other institutions have also closed in line with health requirements.

New York is by far the hardest-hit state, with more than 26,000 confirmed cases and some 210 deaths. Over 13,000 of those cases are in New York City. Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a press conference Tuesday that the rate of new infections is doubling about every three days. “We haven’t flattened the curve and the curve is actually increasing,” he said. “We are exercising all options as aggressively as we can."

In the Satmar Hasidic community – an insular group estimated to include some 65,000 to 75,000 members, most of whom live either in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, or the village of Kiryas Joel (aka Palm Tree) north of New York City – unprecedented measures have been implemented as well. (Danielle Ziri)

>> Read the full report here

7:00 P.M. Bibi's shameful, sinful 'corona coup' suffers massive blow | Haaretz podcast

Host Simon Spungin is joined by senior Haaretz correspondents Chemi Shalev and Anshel Pfeffer for a phone-in discussion of the two great crises facing Israel: the global coronavirus pandemic and the unprecedented constitutional crisis.

In part one, Chemi explains how Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's handling of the COVID-19 crisis has been influenced by his political and legal entanglements and why his behavior since his indictment has been his greatest sin against the State of Israel.

On the political front, Anshel explains why the resignation of Knesset Speaker Yoel (Yuli) Edelstein is a major blow for Netanyahu but why he could yet emerge victorious. Can he somehow emerge from all this as a national hero. Meanwhile, Kahol Lavan leader Benny Gantz might not be able to take advantage of Netanyahu's setback.

Plus: Why Americans should be wary of President Trump, given his penchant for copying from Netanyahu's playbook and why this Passover will be different from all other Passovers.

>> Listen to the podcast here

6:57 P.M. Unemployment surpasses 20 percent

The unemployment rate in Israel rose to 21 percent. Over 90 percent of people who became unemployed in March are on unpaid leave due to coronavirus. (Lee Yaron)

6:22 P.M. Netanyahu approves renewal of regulatory permits

The government approved the automatic renewal of a variety of permits including business licenses and product import permits for two months. The decision is meant to help reduce the bureaucratic burden on government offices and businesses. (Noa Landau)

6:20 P.M. First Palestinian dies from coronavirus

A Palestinian woman in her 60s died from coronavirus in the village of Biddu near Jerusalem, according to Ibrahim Melhem, a spokesman for the Palestinian Authority. The woman had not been abroad and had no contact with verified patients, raising concerns of community spread in the West Bank. Four of her family members later tested positive for the virus.

As of Wednesday evening, 64 cases have been reported in the West Bank. (Jack Khoury)

6:10 P.M. Knesset lawmaker to get tested for coronavirus 

MK Sundus Salah from the Joint List is to undergo a coronavirus test after she felt ill during session and was discovered to have a high fever. (Jonathan Lis)

5:00 P.M. Trains suspended, bus lines reduced

Public transportation will be scaled down and trains will be completely shut starting 8 P.M. on Wednesday. (Josh Breiner)

>> Read the new guidelines here

4:35 P.M. Police says won't enforce lockdown regulations at first

The Israel Police announced that in the coming days it will set up roadblocks in neighborhoods, cities and highways in order to clarify regulations to the public, in addition to police patrols that will ask citizens to identify and if necessary urge them to return to their houses. Fines will only be levied in cases of severe violation. (Josh Breiner)

2:44 P.M. Orthodox Sephardic rabbis green light video conference Seders in stunning ruling

In a startling ruling, a group of prominent Sephardic rabbis in Israel has permitted the use of Zoom videoconferencing at the upcoming Passover Seder so that families can convene virtually without violating restrictions on gatherings mandated by the coronavirus pandemic. The rabbis who issued the ruling, among them the spiritual leaders of several towns and communities in Israel, are all Orthodox.

The ruling has not been endorsed by Israel’s chief rabbis or the Orthodox religious establishment. Indeed, Shmuel Eliyahu, the chief rabbi of Safed and a member of the Chief Rabbinate Council (perhaps best known for his vicious remarks about Israel’s Arab minority) called the ruling “a grave error” that would “destroy the spirit of the Seder night.” (Judy Maltz)

>> Read the full report here

1:42 P.M. Israel's chief rabbis order to close all synagogues amid coronavirus crisis  

In a joint statement, Israel's chief rabbis urged the public to shut down synagogues across the country and not hold prayers of ten people or more inside the shuls. (Aaron Rabinowitz)

1:41 P.M. Two more Palestinians test positive, bringing toll to 60 confirmed cases in the West Bank

The spokesperson for the Palestinian government in the West Bank confirmed two more Palestinians have tested positive for the coronavirus.

The two latest cases are women, with one returning from abroad to Ramallah and the other resides in the Palestinian village of Biddu in the West Bank, northwest of Jerusalem. The latter case raises concerns since she did not travel abroad, but came to into contact with her son, who may also be carrying the disease. (Jack Khoury)