Dispute Over Closing Markets in Israel Delayed Emergency Coronavirus Orders

Police say they can’t enforce latest measures to contain the coronavirus outbreak because there are too many loopholes

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Israel Police at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market, March 20, 2020
Israel Police at Jerusalem's Mahane Yehuda market, March 20, 2020Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

The emergency orders Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Thursday have still not gone into effect, in part because of disagreement in the government over whether to close down shopping centers and open markets on the outskirts of cities. At the end of meetings between the director generals of government ministries, Netanyahu decided that open-air shopping centers would continue to operate for now, and this decision would be reexamined on Tuesday.

The Health Ministry had asked to close down open marketplaces immediately, just as it ordered the closure of shopping malls, because these are very crowded shopping areas that do not enable people to keep far enough apart. But at the cabinet meeting conducted early Friday morning, Culture and Sports Minister Miri Regev objected to such a move and said it was too harsh a measure that the public could not withstand. No decision was reached and the issue was left for the Health Ministry to deal with. Nonetheless, an announcement was released on Friday morning that the emergency orders had been approved unanimously.

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A different announcement stated: “The Health Ministry will distribute detailed instructions about activities in commercial centers and markets.”

During the cabinet meeting, Economy and Industry Minister Eli Cohen asked for shopping centers to continue to remain open, even if they include stores that are not only food stores. It was agreed, in spite of the opposition of Communications Minister David Amsalem, that markets, such as Jerusalem‘s Mahaneh Yehuda, would be included in the places ordered closed. But under pressure from shop owners Netanyahu decided to rethink the issue. The question of closing mikvaot, Jewish ritual baths, was also not included in the draft version of the emergency orders distributed at the cabinet meeting.

The delay in issuing the emergency orders led over the weekend to a dispute between the Health Ministry and the police concerning their enforcement. The police said that as long as the emergency orders had not been officially released, it had a serious problem in enforcing them in light of the many exceptions.

On Thursday, Netanyahu announced a long list of emergency orders that included restrictions on movement and limiting leaving the home except for essential situations, such as going to work, buying food and medicine, and other critical reasons.

On Friday, Jerusalem’s central markets, normally bustling with shoppers, were nearly empty, with the few customers walking around with face masks. Gloomy merchants in the Mahaneh Yehuda market spoke about only one thing – whether the market will be closed next week.

“If they tell us to shut down, we’ll shut down,” one of them said. “We’re not above the law.” Another merchant said: “What can you do? People are scared.”

A short distance from there, Malkei Israel – a central shopping street for the city’s ultra-Orthodox community – was similarly deserted. Only a few hundred shoppers, down from the many thousands on a regular Friday, were there to do their shopping, and some stores were closed.

“I don’t remember a Friday like this one,” said one merchant. “The only time this ever happens is when Yom Kippur eve is on Friday, so people stay at home to eat (before fasting) and don’t come.”

Aaron Rabinowitz contributed to this report.

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