Israel Puts ultra-Orthodox City on Lockdown in Attempt to Curb Coronavirus

Bnei Brak becomes first 'restricted zone,' as municipal officials warn of a prolonged emergency period

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An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man and children stand behind barred windows in the city of Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv on April 2, 2020.
An Ultra-Orthodox Jewish man and children stand behind barred windows in the city of Bnei Brak near Tel Aviv on April 2, 2020.Credit: AFP

The Israeli government approved new regulations to allow closure on areas identified as coronavirus hot spots, prompting authorities to designate the central ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak a “restricted zone.”

The Tel Aviv suburb is the first area to be classified as such. Movements to and from the city will only be allowed for essential needs or in extraordinary circumstances. The government said it would form a ministerial committee headed by Prime Minister Netanyahu with the authority to declare other areas as restricted zones.

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According to the new regulations approved by the government, closures can be imposed on areas that have “indications of a high coronavirus contagion rate.” 

The regulations will not affect other lockdown orders in place, which would remain as they are elsewhere in the country.

Leaving a restricted zone would be allowed for medical treatment, judicial proceeding or funeral of an immediate family member, as well as for police officers, soldiers and medical staff on duty. Entry would be limited to residents, law enforcement and medical teams, social workers, journalists and workers “providing goods.” Other cases would require a special permit from the National Emergency Authority.

Police would be tasked with enforcing the order, and would be allowed to use force to do so, accoding to the government’s decision.

The government also approved on Thursday a mandatory 14-day quarantine at home or at a facility for Israelis returning from abroad. The regulations also set a 5,000-shekel ($1,361) fine on those who refuse or violate a doctor’s instruction to go into quarantine at a location determined by the state.

Preparing for Passover, and beyond

The decision to put Bnei Brak on lockdown comes after civilian and military authorities deployed in force in the city to attempt to curb the epidemic

On Wednesday, the municipality authorized health maintenance organization to set up testing stations. Israel's Home Front Command evacuated about 100 corona patients out of the city, but intensified testing, and the exponential spread of the virus meant that, by Thursday morning, the number of patients had risen to 900.

Municipal officials believe there are still thousands of potentially sick people yet to be tested. They are preparing for a prolonged emergency period.

An ultra-Orthodox man walks in Bnei Brak during the coronavirus outbreak, central Israel, April 2, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

A major concern is the health and wellbeing of residents confined to their homes. Authorities are still far from having control over the city’s needs, as municipal officials seem unable to help residents in isolation.

“Every request to the social affairs office and city hotline is taken care of," a city official told Haaretz. "But there are still undoubtedly malfunctions and mishaps. We’re trying to deal with them.”

Many residents are worried because the traditional Passover food distribution to thousands of elderly and needy residents, and families with children with special needs, won’t be carried out as usual.

“There’s only about 50 percent of the food that is given out every year,” one resident says. “Quite a few residents are counting on that food. They get basic products like eggs, potatoes, onions and other things. If they don’t have that, they have a problem with the holiday meal.”

Police officers in protective gear enforcing emergency regulations in Bnei Brak, central Israel, April 2, 2020.Credit: Moti Milrod

Huge lines at the entrances to large supermarkets have been reported, which do not help efforts to keep the virus from spreading. “Instead of delivering the products to people’s homes the deliveries have been stopped, forcing people to go out,” a resident says.

The town of Kiryat Yearim and the West Bank settlement of Beitar Ilit, both predominantly Haredi, also said on Thursday they would refuse entry to non-residents in light of the virus’ spread. 

“We’ve been looking at other ways to stop the disease’s spread in our communities,” said council officials in Kiryat Yearim, near Jerusalem. “We decided for the sake of public health not to allow anyone in who isn’t a resident.” 

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