Israel Passes Law Curbing COVID-19 Enforcement Powers

The power to impose a lockdown, require schools to switch to remote learning or impose restrictions on people leaving the country will be limited to a state of emergency only

Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel
The Knesset plenum in Jerusalem, in January.
The Knesset plenum in Jerusalem, in January.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Noa Shpigel
Noa Shpigel

Israel’s parliament approved a new law on Tuesday that limits the government’s ability to impose pandemic-related restrictions.

According to the law, the government will be able to declare a health emergency or a mere “special health situation,” but both must be approved by either the Knesset Constitution Committee or the full Knesset within seven days. Otherwise, the powers are rescinded automatically.

The power to impose a lockdown, require schools to switch to remote learning or impose restrictions on people leaving the country will be limited to a state of emergency only.

The law also protects the right to demonstrate in either situation, in contrast to the existing law, which permits restrictions on demonstrations.

Additionally, it limits a state of emergency to 45 days and a “special health situation” to 90 days, thereby effectively canceling the continuous state of emergency that has lasted since the pandemic erupted in early 2020. The law will come into force next month and remain in effect until the end of the year.

The cabinet can declare a special health situation if ministers are convinced there is a real risk of the virus spreading and harming the public’s health, but can only declare a state of emergency if they are convinced that the virus has risen significantly enough to pose a severe threat. In either case, it must receive opinions from both the health minister and the Health Ministry’s professional staff before deciding.

Meanwhile, the law states that Israel’s so-called green passport system, under which entry to many venues is limited to people who are vaccinated, recovered from the virus or recently tested negative, will not apply to any place that sells essential goods or provides essential services.

Moreover, the government will not have the power to limit the pass to the vaccinated and recovered, allowing people to have the option of presenting a negative coronavirus test instead. The government will also be obliged to fund such tests for people who cannot get vaccinated for medical reasons.

The law also requires any changes in regulations relating to quarantine or mask-wearing to be approved by the Knesset Labor, Welfare and Health Committee.

The law also stipulates that the coronavirus cabinet must include at least five ministers, including the health minister and the prime minister. The finance minister must be a member of the smaller ministerial committee that will be authorized to discuss changes in the regulations during a special health situation.

The law came up for its final Knesset vote on Tuesday after being approved by the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee earlier in the day. The committee vote became possible only after the government gave up on its plan to add a provision mandating coronavirus testing in the schools.

In his speech to the full Knesset, Constitution Committee Chairman Gilad Kariv (Labor) said the new law increases oversight of the government. He also rejected claims that it was Draconian. “Anyone who think this situation is turning Israel into a dictatorship has evidently never lived under a dictatorship,” he said.

Earlier, during the committee meeting, Kariv said the bill “will enable us to end the state of emergency after almost two years and transition to a special health situation, in which there’s a more appropriate balance between protecting our fundamental rights and the need to prevent harm to the public’s health.”

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