For Two Weeks, Israeli Police Enforced Coronavirus Orders Without Protective Gear

Health Ministry finally changes directives after spike in cases in ultra-Orthodox communities

Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner
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The Mea She'arim neighborhood of Jerusalem, March 31, 2020.
The Mea She'arim neighborhood of Jerusalem, March 31, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman
Josh Breiner
Josh Breiner

Israel's Health Ministry on Monday instructed police officers operating in the ultra-Orthodox cities of Bnei Brak and Beit Shemesh and in Jerusalem’s Mea She’arim neighborhood to wear masks and gloves to protect themselves from the coronavirus, after two weeks of saying there was no need for protective gear.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 72

In fact, Health Ministry Deputy Director General Prof. Itamar Groto had told senior police officers that wearing gloves during a shift could harm officers’ health.

According to senior law enforcement officials, the new directive came after a significant delay. For days police had been operating in Haredi towns and neighborhoods without protective gear.

The Health Ministry did not respond for comment on this report.

>> Follow Haaretz's live coverage as Israel deals with the coronavirus crisis

Under the new guidelines, police officers must wear masks during their entire shift and wear gloves while conducting a body search or searching through belongings. During regular activity, the officers should change gloves every three hours. Before, the Health Ministry had advised that police use protective gear only when confronting people violating their quarantine or if they were involved in a forced hospitalization.

Israeli border police escort an ultra-Orthodox man in the Mea She'arim neighborhood of Jerusalem, 31 March, 2020.Credit: Emil Salman

The change in instructions came at the insistence of Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan, following the sharp rise in the number of patients and the close contact officers have with the public. “We must not in any way put the health or lives of police officers at risk.”

Even before the new directives, the police had taken steps to reduce close contact with members of the public – for example, by taking complaints and testimonies outside the police stations. The ministry and the police said that all officers have gloves, masks and other protective equipment in their patrol cars, and that the police are soliciting bids to procure additional gear.

Data obtained by Haaretz shows that the rate of infection with coronavirus is substantially greater in Haredi enclaves than in mixed cities or secular areas. In Bnei Brak, for example, as of Tuesday there were 574 confirmed cases, more than twice as many as last Thursday. Over 35 percent of those tested have been found to be infected.

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman said he had proposed to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to impose a full closure on Bnei Brak for three days to stop the spread of the virus. In an interview published Tuesday in Yedioth Ahronoth, Litzman said the situation in Bnei Brak was “terrible. Every day there’s a concern about the risk to life.”

Health Ministry Director General Moshe Bar Siman Tov said Tuesday that such a lockdown would require extremely high involvement of the Home Front Command and the police, and that there would be further discussions on the issue. He also told journalists that the ministry was changing its approach regarding the use of face masks and would formulate rules on this matter.

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