With Coronavirus Emergency Rules Still Ill-defined, Police Moves to Enforcement

Focus of police action would be on informing, Public Security Minister earlier vowed; but dozens already got fined.

Police make an arrest in Jerusalem's Mea Shearim, March 24, 2020.
Ohad Zwigenberg

Despite Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan’s assurances that, as new emergency regulations to curb the spread of the coronavirus came into effect, police “enforcement would be easy going and tolerant,” dozens were already handed out tickets on Thursday, mainly around Jerusalem.

Iman Naabis, 25, was fined 500 shekels ($140) at 10 A.M. on Thursday after being found with 2 passengers in his vehicle. The regulations allow for only one passenger besides the driver. “I, my brother and cousin were on the way to work in construction, as we do every day. A policeman stopped us and asked why there were three people in the car. I told him I didn’t know it was forbidden, and asked him to give me a warning, but he didn’t care. He said the rules were published online and he gave me a ticket.”

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Erdan’s commitment was that police would focus on informing the public; but even they seem unclear about what the complex rules are.

At other checkpoints across the city, policemen asked citizens on their way to work to produce documents showing they work at essential jobs, even though the regulations don’t require that, allowing people to leave the house to go to any job they have. “I was on my way to my high-tech job and a policeman asked me to show a document showing it was essential work or go home, otherwise he’d fine me” said Ariel, a Jerusalem resident. “I tried to explain, but he threatened me with a ticket.” Some people who were detained called the Home Front Command, which told them they didn’t need such documents.

‘We’re about to have a complete closure and people have to get used to it’

Very few people could be seen on a square in the central Israeli city of Petah Tikva that was the stage for many protest rallies against the Attorney General in recent years. All thought they were allowed to be there. One couple came from the West Bank settlement of Modi’in Ilit to open a bank account. The wife knows they’re not allowed to leave home, but said it didn’t matter. “They should have imposed a full closure, now we’ll all get sick anyway. Opening this account was essential for us, we had no choice” she said.

The police deployment is similar in every city: temporary checkpoints that stop and check cars, with other forces deployed in city parks and public gardens. A third force is responsible for businesses and commercial centers. Starting on Sunday, policemen will be joined by IDF soldiers, and will be giving out tickets as a policy when police systems will be brought to speed .

“We’re about to have a complete closure and people have to get used to it” says Superintendent Shai Guez, the acting commander of Petah Tikva’s police force, who is waiting for reinforcements coming from a paratrooper unit. The soldiers will patrol city streets instead of West Bank areas. “We won’t run after people with measuring tapes, we won’t go crazy, but we are preparing for a full curfew” says the commander.

Senior Staff Sgt. Maj. Asaf Benno patrols the parks in Petah Tikva. “I’ve heard many excuses already – I’m in a public space, I’m on my way to buy medications, but there aren’t 10 people here – people sweating in their sport gear saying they’re only 100 meters from home, it’s funny. Everyone invents an excuse” he says.

Israel Police on patrol along Tel Aviv's beachfront, March 25, 2020.
Ofer Vaknin

So far, he hasn’t handed out tickets. “I haven’t encountered anyone who didn’t cooperate but people still don’t understand the regulations. The idea is to keep people indoors.”

The police say that their efforts are focused on monitoring and explaining, as well as on guiding public behavior so as to enforce the law and the new regulations. “Thousands of people were seen today violating the new rules across the country, mainly in Jerusalem, and they received a warning. Only a few dozen tickets were issued. Anyone who understands law enforcement knows that without administrative or criminal sanctions when appropriate and at the right dosage, there will be no deterrence or obedience or compliance with rules that were designed to protect the lives of all of us. At this point we will not ask to see special permits from the health ministry but in some cases policeman are allowed to conduct a search and ask for documents proving that travel is in compliance with permitted purposes.”