Ultra-Orthodox, Arab Cities Across Israel Challenge Planned Coronavirus Lockdown

Israel's coronavirus czar is expected to announce which cities and towns will be put under lockdown starting Monday, as infection rates keep rising

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Girls walking in the Old City in Jerusalem, September 2, 2020.
Girls walking in the Old City in Jerusalem, September 2, 2020. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Coronavirus czar Ronni Gamzu will ask the coronavirus cabinet Sunday to approve a seven-day lockdown on eight to 10 towns – most of them ultra-Orthodox or Arab Israeli.

Bnei Brak, Elad, Umm al-Fahm and Kfar Qasem are expected to be on Gamzu’s list, which was still not final as of late Saturday.

Sources in both ultra-Orthodox and Arab cities have said they will challenge a lockdown.

The number of coronavirus deaths in Israel passed 1,000 Saturday, reaching 1,007. There were 2,717 new cases diagnosed Friday, putting the total at 128,768, of whom 26,283 are currently sick.

The communities for which lockdowns are expected are in the “bright red” category, the worst on a list of 30 “red” towns where infection rates have run high in recent weeks.

Other measures are likely to be imposed in addition to the lockdowns, such as barring all entry and exit to towns, with residents restricted to 500 meters from their homes. Also,  all businesses would be closed except for critical stores such as supermarkets and drugstores. All schools would be closed and public transportation limited.

Sources familiar with the situation say the list being presented to the cabinet Sunday will not include communities with the worst rates of infection under the so-called traffic-light plan. Instead, they will be based on a wider spectrum of considerations based on consultations with professionals and local officials.  

Israel's coronavirus traffic light plan

Gamzu and his team drew up the lockdown list at the end of the week. Health officials, district physicians, Home Front Command officials, police and local council heads took part in the discussions. 

Gamzu also held talks with local government officials from red cities likely to be included on the list.  

'The lockdown will only destroy the economy'

Gamzu aims for the lockdowns to take place in cooperation with local government leaders.

Some of the local government heads have approached Gamzu and his people seeking a full  lockdown or curfews to help stop the spread of infection. This would, for example, help prevent the holding of weddings at night.

“The approval for a lockdown will be up to seven days at this stage. It doesn’t need to last beyond that,” a source close to Gamzu’s team said. 

“We have the capability to focus our resources and efforts to reduce the spread of the illness in a community within days, such as what was implemented in the case of [Druze village] Yarka.  It’s not easy, it’s complicated, but it can be done even in cities like [ultra-Orthodox] Bnei Brak. They will get all the help they want.” 

Sources close to Gamzu said most local council heads have been cooperating. The team’s instructions would have full legal authority, and any violations would be viewed as a violation of the law.

But sources told Haaretz that Haredi municipalities are considering ending cooperation with the Health Ministry and the army’s Home Front Command if a lockdown is placed on the cities this week.

On Saturday evening, Haredi mayors began drafting a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatening to halt to all coordination with health authorities if lockdowns are imposed. They intend to shut down all operations run by the city and leave the job to the government. These operations include the closing down of synagogues, evacuation of patients to centralized facilities and enforcement of mandatory quarantine.

The effort is led by the mayors of Bnei Brak and Beitar Illit, where lockdowns are expected on Monday, but Haaretz has learnt that other mayors are united behind the call, and that they are backed by prominent rabbis.

A source involved in the matter told Haaretz that Rabbi Gershon Edelstein will need to give his opinion on the matter. Edelstein, a leader in the ultra-Orthodox “Lithuanian” sect differs, from his partner in the leadership, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, in that he takes a more hardline stance in fighting the virus.    

Members of the Bnei Brak municipality say that the Health Ministry is not listening to them, and that a lockdown is completely unnecessary. The municipality believes that although the city is designated red, the surrounding cities are not affected by it, thus a lockdown is unnecessary. Even though Bnei Brak is a red city, neighboring Petah Tikva and Tel Aviv are yellow, while nearby Givat Shmuel is orange.

Prof. Ronni Gamzu presents his coronavirus program for nursing homes, Tel Aviv, April 20, 2020.
Prof. Ronni Gamzu presents his coronavirus program for nursing homes, Tel Aviv, April 20, 2020. Credit: Moti Milrod

“Bnei Brak has zero effect on the surrounding cities,” a municipality source said. “The lockdown will only destroy the economy and education system, but not stop the infection rate, which will continue within households.”

Sources in the city say the major outbreaks in the city were caused by events and large weddings, some of which were hosted by rabbis and other major decision-makers. The municipality cannot and sometimes does not want to clamp down on these events, the sources said.

Haredi leaders are dissatisfied with the plan put together by Gamzu, and claim the criteria for imposing lockdowns is discriminatory. For instance, if a yeshiva student tests positive for coronavirus, this will negatively impact the rate of positive tests in his hometown, even if he studied elsewhere. If he tests negative, however, his test is not counted in any city's score.

They also claim there is lack of transparency in how scores are calculated. Last week, cities were penalized for having over 100 coronavirus cases. "This half point [penalty] landed Bnei Brak on the list of red cities, and nobody was aware of this criterion," said a source, arguing that the system unfairly penalizes populous cities. 

In Nazareth, Mayor Ali Salem has made clear he would challenge a lockdown.

“The government and Gamzu want to hurt the city and its residents,” the mayor told Nazareth-based Ashams Radio. “Nazareth has a few dozen cases, and compared with its population there’s no reason to declare Nazareth a red city.”

Salem says there is a difference between a call to obey safety regulations and a humiliating lockdown that would further destroy a city already suffering a shortage of tourists during the pandemic.

Business and restaurant owners near the city’s central Mary’s Well said they agree.

“We consider a lockdown collective punishment, and that’s it. It’s illogical for there to be such an itchy finger on the lockdown trigger just because of the authorities and decision-makers’ failures, instead of imposing a stiff punishment on those who violate the law,” said a business owner who requested anonymity. 

“I don’t want to confront anybody, but most of the red cities are Arab towns; we know the reason is mainly violations of the law and a lack of enforcement. If stiffer punishments are given, for example, on the issue of weddings in Arab society, that would mesh with better police enforcement or clearer instructions by the authorities. Then the infection problem could be resolved without a lockdown or curfew that would do a lot of damage to local businesses.”

'Nothing is clear'

Next to the plaza of Mary’s Well in the city, juice vendor Abu Ma’aruf sells a few cups to students leaving a nearby school in the sweltering heat. “I’ve made less than 50 shekels [$15] since morning,” he says. “I used to sell hundreds of cups a day to tourists. But since March it’s been dead here. Now I only have the locals, and now they want to ruin that too by declaring Nazareth a red city."

When a Haaretz journalist visited, dozens of parents were waiting near Mary’s Well to take their children home from school, while traffic on nearby roads was considerable.

“The situation is complicated and unclear,” says Bishara Awad, father of a second-grader and a fourth-grader. “I think the city is really a red one and there’s a fear of a further spread of the pandemic. The schools should be closed; the problem is that nothing is clear.”

People wearing masks in a street in Bnei Brak, Israel, August 2020.
People wearing masks in a street in Bnei Brak, Israel, August 2020. Credit: Moti Milrod

In Nazareth and elsewhere, doctors and other community leaders, including religious leaders, have urged everyone to avoid gatherings and obey the instructions, given the data on the case load.

The Arab emergency committee that has data on Arab communities except East Jerusalem and mixed Arab-Jewish cities says the number of active cases in the Arab community is above 6,500, of these 3,000 since August. The death toll is close to 80, and fewer than 10 died in the previous wave of the outbreak.

Eifman Serif, who is supervising the fight against the coronavirus in Arab towns and villages, told the cabinet and Gamzu on Thursday that he opposed a lockdown on all red cities. Serif suggested locking down and setting a curfew for the eight communities with the highest infection rates, Jewish and Arab. This would serve as a deterrent for people in other cities.

In the Druze town of Daliat al-Carmel on Saturday, Gamzu spoke of a scenario of hundreds of dead in Arab towns and villages. He discussed the need to impose both a full lockdown and curfew.

Taibeh Mayor Shoa Mansour, whose city near the West Bank is also a red zone, opposes a full lockdown and supports an evening curfew to prevent weddings from taking place. He says there is no reason to harm the functioning of schools with a lockdown.

The mayor of Kafr Qasem, Adel Badir, told Haaretz that he and heads of nearby communities such as Kafr Bara and Jaljulya support a nighttime curfew and a lockdown for a limited period.

Mudar Younes, the chairman of the committee of Arab council heads, says this move is necessary given the indifference among many Arab Israelis.

“No council head wants a lockdown or curfew, and they all understand very well what the economic and social fallout would be, but on the other hand, they can’t accept a situation of spreading infection and illness,” Younes said.

“It’s intolerable, and the situation is becoming very dangerous, so I and many of my colleagues support restrictions with an emphasis on evening hours with the aim of preventing gatherings, including weddings.”

A lockdown and/or a curfew would test the issue of law enforcement in Arab communities. Local leaders in most red cities acknowledge that they lack effective means to enforce such rules without the help of the police.

Badir, the mayor of Kafr Qasem, says he only has two police vans and a limited number of inspectors. “We can appeal and explain directly, and even via religious clerics and public figures. But actual enforcement, I think that’s the role of the police,” he says.

“So I support the option of a curfew from 9 P.M. because that sends a message that despite the high economic and social price, we must take drastic steps for at least two weeks to curb the spread of the pandemic.”

Younes, however, says most Arab councils are weak and unable to assure effective enforcing of a curfew or lockdown.

Many local government leaders acknowledge that without police assistance, any attempt to impose a lockdown or curfew would fail.

“A local inspector can’t enter your yard and break up a wedding, that’s clear,” Younes says. “So beyond explaining things, there’s a need for effective enforcement, and only the police can do that.”

Abu Ma’aruf in Nazareth, September 6, 2020.
Abu Ma’aruf in Nazareth, September 6, 2020. Credit: rami shllush

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