Israeli Businesses Say Without Compensation They Would Defy Coronavirus Lockdown

'In July we took to the streets, and now we’ll do it again,' said chairman of an organization representing small businesses, ahead of a government vote on a two-week lockdown

Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
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Ya’akov Maslawi, a merchant in the market in the central city of Ramle, September 2020.
Ya’akov Maslawi, a merchant in the market in the central city of Ramle, September 2020.Credit: Ilan Assayag

Israel’s cabinet decided on Thursday on a two-week nationwide lockdown starting on Friday to fend off a steep rise in coronavirus cases, but some business owners say they intend to flout directives if they aren’t guaranteed compensation in advance.

Tomer Mor, who leads a union of restaurant owners, said many of its members will open their eateries regardless of the government’s decision. “The government will face strong opposition and disobedience by caterers and self-employed people fighting for their lives,” he said.

A protest by restaurant owners against a government decision in July to shut down their businesses with immediate effect succeeded in changing that decision, eventually undoing it altogether.

Moshe Or-Hai Shmueli, the owner of an air conditioning business, Petah Tikva, September 12, 2020.
Moshe Or-Hai Shmueli, the owner of an air conditioning business, Petah Tikva, September 12, 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani

“In July we took to the streets, and now we’ll do it again,” said Roi Cohen, chairman of Lahav – the Israel Chamber of Independent Organizations and Businesses. According to him, lockdown proposals “lead to desperation and economic uncertainty.” Authorities, Cohen said, “had four months to prepare for a reality where we’ll have to go into a lockdown again, we’ve sounded all the alarms, but no lessons have been learned. There’s no lockdown without compensation in advance.”

Yaki Kabir, who owns a Japanese restaurant in Tel Aviv, said he doesn’t intend to follow a government directive to shutter his business. “This government has no legitimacy to [impose] another lockdown, after citizens complied” during the first nationwide lockdown in April, he said, decrying “inadequate exit plans” marred by “politics and bureaucracy.”

A protest by self-employed Israelis, Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, July 11, 2020.
A protest by self-employed Israelis, Rabin Square, Tel Aviv, July 11, 2020.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The ministerial committee leading Israel’s coronavirus response approved the two-week lockdown, set to go into on the evening of Rosh Hashanah, but the government will still have to vote on it on Sunday. During the lockdown, movement will be restricted, the education system mostly closed, and many businesses ordered to shut. Restaurants would be allowed to operate delivery services only.

Ya’akov Maslawi, a merchant in the market in the central city of Ramle, said he and other stall owners are planning a protest against the government’s plans to order outdoor markets to shut but to leave supermarkets open, as it did between March and May. “If they open retail shops, who operate in a closed space with air conditioning, we should be allowed to open too, as we work in an open space,” he said.

“It cannot be that supermarket chains owned by tycoons, who anyway make billions and are close to the government, will be allowed to open at the expense of small businesses,” Maslawi said, adding that “If they open, we open. None of us are anarchists, but if it’s any other way, there’ll be a rebellion.”

However, Harel Bello, who owns several restaurants in Tel Aviv, said that even though he supports the demand for compensation, he wouldn’t defy orders. “We’re law abiding citizens, and that’s why we’ll probably abide by the government’s directives, but they have to compensate us,” he said. “The government should show responsibility, not only on health issues, but on the economy too.”

Uncertainty

“This lockdown is going to be a catastrophe,” said Moshe Or-Hai Shmueli, a 58-year-old owner of an air conditioning business, who says his income has taken a rough hit. “We went into the first lockdown not knowing what its results would be, but now we know they’re destructive,” he said. “We’re in an emergency. We’re down to four employees in the office from 15, people come in and out of quarantine, projects are stalled and payments are being held. We have no cash flow, we can’t cover paychecks like this.”

A protest performance by the self-employed, Tel Aviv, August 26, 2020.
A protest performance by the self-employed, Tel Aviv, August 26, 2020.Credit: Meged Gozani

Shmueli said he has never felt “this level of uncertainty, wanting to just give up, take my family and go.” He puts the blame on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yisrael Katz, and their decision to extend unemployment benefits through next summer. It makes going back to work “not worth it,” Shmueli argues. “There’s so many [other] solutions that make sense. They could have solved it quickly, but because of politics and the prime minister’s fear, we’re caught with the crappiest leadership and with our pants down.”

“Instead of fighting the coronavirus and develop the economy, the government has developed the virus and fought the economy,” said Amir Hayek, president of the Israel Hotel Association, estimating the damage to the hotel industry due to the planned holiday lockdown will be 800 million shekels (about $230 million) and calling it “a death blow.”