Coronavirus Israel: Netanyahu Announces Plan to Extend School Year Through July

Israel mulls ways to allow Israelis to return home to vote ■ Cabinet approves vaccination of Palestinians working in Israel ■ Jerusalem marks Purim under strict restrictions ■ PA announces West Bank lockdown

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Students protest in Jerusalem, calling to reopen schools.
Students protest in Jerusalem, calling to reopen schools.Credit: Emil Salman

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Israel is in the midst of an extensive vaccination campaign, and is beginning to see a drop in COVID infections and severe cases. Israel exited its third nationwide lockdown, but inbound and outbound flights remain suspended except for special cases. So far, 5,752 Israelis have died of the virus.

Meanwhile, Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip have received 30,000 doses of the Russian Sputnik V vaccine, and 2,000 doses of the Moderna vaccine donated by Israel. It may take a while still for a mass vaccination campaign to get under way, and many months for it to reach enough members of the population. 1,709 people have died so far in the West Bank, while 550 have died in Gaza.

>> How many have already been vaccinated

>> Two months into Israel’s COVID vaccination drive, most comprehensive study yet shows level of effectiveness

>> Bernie Sanders slams Israel for sending COVID vaccines to allies before Palestinians

LIVE UPDATES

10:58 P.M. Official: Israel to provide vaccines to Sinai peacekeepers

Israel will provide the U.S.-led Multinational Force and Observers (MFO) in Egypt's Sinai peninsula with COVID-19 vaccines for its personnel, an Israeli official said on Sunday.

The official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said 2,400 doses would be provided but did not elaborate on the terms or the timing of the handover. (Reuters)

>> Click here to read the full report

9:42 P.M. Concerns over rise in infections after Purim

The Health Ministry is worried by the rise in the infection coefficient for COVID-19, as well as by the general increase in new infections, particularly given the numerous violations of the guidelines that took place over the Purim holiday. As a result, the ministry is reevaluating how and when to introduce the next stage of the lockdown exit that was meant to start at the beginning of next week.

During the coming days, Health Minister Yuli Edelstein, ministry professionals and the experts of the Magen Israel program will be holding discussions on possible recommendations to issue about how to move forward.

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9:30 P.M. Attorney general to probe Transportation Ministry’s exceptions committee, sources say

Officials representing Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit have asked the Transportation Ministry’s exceptions committee that decides who can enter the country while its only international airport is largely closed for information about entry permits the government has approved and which requests it has rejected, according to sources.

The sources said the request was made in preparation for a probe into the committee’s behavior during the past weeks, amid accusations that it has been biased in favor of ultra-Orthodox travelers. Last week, the committee's legal adviser said that decisions were being made randomly and based on precedent, without clear criteria. (Jonathan Lis)

8:47 P.M. Israel denied entry of 15,000 citizens over the past month

Nearly 5,000 foreign nationals have entered Israel over the past month, after the imposition of strict limits on Israelis arriving abroad from entering the country, while over 15,000 Israelis have been denied entry.

According to figures obtained by Haaretz that are set to be presented to the cabinet on Monday, 4,800 foreign nationals entered Israel in the past month, while 15,949 Israelis were allowed to enter and at least 15,000 other Israelis had their request to enter rejected. (Chaim Levinson and Ido Efrati)

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8:25 P.M. Figures show rising infection rate in Arab community

The past week saw a rise of about 500 new coronavirus cases in the Israeli Arab community compared to the preceding week, according to figures released Sunday by the Arab emergency COVID-19 committee, which reported 4,423 new cases in Arab cities and towns, excluding mixed Jewish-Arab cities.

According to these numbers, there are currently 7,521 active cases in Arab localities, 147 of whom are in serious condition. More than 478,000 members of Arab communities have been vaccinated so far with the first dose, an addition of 90,000 compared to the preceding week, an increase of 53 percent. The number of Arab citizens who’ve received the second dose stands at 255,000.

Dr. Mohammed Khatib, an expert in public health, explains that most of the newly infected people were not vaccinated, and that the more contagious British variant is infecting unvaccinated young people at higher rates. (Jack Khoury)

8:22 P.M. Netanyahu’s hubristic vaccine diplomacy | Analysis

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ambitious program to distribute COVID-19 vaccines to as many as 19 countries across the globe has been suspended due to legal queries made to the attorney general and the outcry from his coalition “partners” Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, who weren’t informed of it in advance. Only Honduras has so far confirmed that it received its batch of 5,000 doses, thought other countries may have gotten theirs and remained silent. 

But putting aside for one moment the question whether Netanyahu’s decision to dole out these gifts, without bringing the matter to the cabinet first, was even legal, it’s important to ask what he was trying to achieve with his personal brand of vaccine diplomacy.

Netanyahu isn’t the only leader trying to use the soft power of vaccine shipments. The dictators of Russia and China are busy doing so with their own client regimes, but they are leaders of global powers that are actually manufacturing their own coronavirus vaccines. Netanyahu is the prime minister of a country with 9 million citizens. He just happens to be sitting on a small stockpile of surplus vaccines, imported and paid for by Israel’s taxpayers.

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7:59 P.M. With no public transport, thousands march to Jerusalem

Thousands of people have found a way to circumvent the government's ban on public transport to Jerusalem since Saturday night – by walking to the city on foot.

Entire families with baby carriages and suitcases were spotted walking along the highways to the city, mainly along Route 443, Bar Giora Road and Ein Hemed Road. (Aaron Rabinowitz)

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7:00 P.M. More students to return to the classroom, Netanyahu advancing plan to extend school year

Seventh through 10th graders in areas with low infection rates will return to the classroom in the coming days, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at a press briefing at the Education Ministry on Sunday.

In addition, "There is a need to fill in the educational gaps created during this year, and therefore the education minister and I are bringing forward a plan to extend the school year through July," Netanyahu said. The plan will be brought before the cabinet, he added, and include every grade except for 12.  

"We will strictly safeguard the rights of teachers and make sure they receive full pay…this is what is needed to give the children of Israel what they deserve," the prime minister said. (Shira Kadari-Ovadia)

4:45 P.M. Netanyahu expected to announce the extension of the school year through July

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to announce Sunday that Israel's school year will be extended through July.

Several sources involved in the matter told Haaretz that Netanyahu is expected to make the declaration at a press conference on Sunday evening and provide additional details, including to which grades the extension will apply.

Other officials are expected to join the prime minister at the press conference at the Education Ministry in Jerusalem, including Education Minister Yoav Gallant and chairman of the Federation of Local Councils in Israel Haim Bibas.

On Monday, the cabinet is slated to discuss the return of grades seven through 10 to the classroom. Two weeks ago, the Health Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office rejected a demand by the Education Ministry that children in these grades be allowed to return in-person learning.

As of Sunday, schools have reopened to all grade levels except seven through 10 in cities and towns with comparatively low rates of coronavirus infection, and in locales with higher infection rates but in which at least 70 percent of people age 50 and above have been vaccinated. (Shira Kadari-Ovadia)

4:08 P.M. Quarantine order at state-run facility extended to March 5

The coronavirus cabinet approved on Sunday an extension to the requirement that anyone arriving in Israel from abroad go into quarantine in a state-run facility.

The requirement had been due to expire on March 2 at noon, but has been extended through March 5. For those who are not tested for COVID-19, the regulations require quarantine for 14 days. Individuals who twice test negative for the virus are required to stay for 10 days.

Passengers can submit a request to be excused from quarantine at a hotel, and regulations also provide exemptions from quarantine for passengers who produce a certificate of vaccination or that they have recovered from the coronavirus. All inbound and outbound travel to and from Israel also requires special permission. (Haaretz)

15:37 Cabinet approves vaccination of Palestinians working in Israel, settlements

The cabinet has approved the vaccination of Palestinian laborers working in Israel and in West Bank settlements, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories said in a statement Sunday.

The vaccination campaign is set to begin in the coming days, the statement said, without disclosing how many vaccine doses were allocated for it.

According to the statement, vaccination centers for Palestinians working in Israel will be set up at West Bank crossings. Vaccination centers for laborers working in Jewish settlements will be set up in industrial zones across the West Bank.

Israeli medical staff will be administering the vaccines, manufactured by Moderna, it added. (Hagar Shezaf and Yaniv Kubovich)

>> Click here to read the full report

2:50 P.M. Israel mulls ways to allow Israelis to return home to vote

The government is working on a plan which would allow any Israeli who wants to return to Israel from abroad in to vote in the upcoming March 23 election to do so, without first receiving approval from the exceptions committee that has become the subject of heightened controversy over the past week. 

The office of Transportation Minister Miri Regev said that, contrary to recent reports, the National Security Council, together with all relevant parties, is examining several possible paths that would allow Israeli citizens to return to Israel from abroad to vote. Until a decision is made on the matter, the exceptions committee will operate in accordance with existing procedures.

The exceptions committee was established about a month after the third nationwide lockdown began in December, when inbound and outbound flights were banned in an effort to curb the spread of COVID strains in Israel. (Rina Rozenberg Kandel)

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10:45 A.M. More than 40,000 active cases in Israel

There are 40,108 active COVID cases in Israel, according to Health Ministry figures released on Sunday morning.

1,278 people are hospitalized with COVID, of whom 776 are in serious condition and 241 are on ventilators. To date, 5,738 people have died of the coronavirus.  

According to the latest figures from Sunday, Israel has inoculated almost 4.7 million people (51.5 percent of the population), with more than 27,000 people receiving a jab on Saturday. Of the overall figure, more than 3.3 million people (about 36.5 percent of the population) have received the second dose of the vaccine. (Haaretz)

10 A.M. Palestinians tighten lockdown as coronavirus strains ravage the West Bank

The Palestinian Authority announced Saturday a tightening of the lockdown in the West Bank for 12 days, citing an uptick in new cases of the coronavirus variant and the delayed arrival of inoculations.

West Bank hospitals are reporting that intensive care units designated to COVID-19 patients are under significant strain, operating at between 80 and 100 percent capacity. There is also serious concern over the number of children in these wards.

However, the stricter measures do not constitute a total lockdown, which was deliberated last week by the Health Ministry but faced firm objections from the Chamber of Commerce. (Amira Hass)

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9:35 A.M. Gantz to oppose extending flight ban until Justice Ministry official joins exemptions committee

Amid heightening controversy surrounding Israel’s ban on international flights (in effect since January), and less than a month away from Israel’s election on March 23, Defense Minister Benny Gantz said on Saturday night that he would not support an extension of the ban until a Justice Ministry representative is admitted to the committee tasked with handling requests for exemptions.  

Gantz’s demand came on the heels of an admission last week by the legal adviser to the exceptions committee that its decisions relating to exemptions allowing Israelis to re-enter Israel on humanitarian grounds are being made arbitrarily, on the basis of precedents and in the absence of on clear criteria.

Israelis who wish to return to Israel to vote in the elections should be allowed to do so by way of presenting negative coronavirus test results, Gantz said, calling for such a plan to be formulated even before the flight ban expires on March 10. He added that if his demand is not met, Kahol Lavan will oppose the extension of the restrictions, and called on Netanyahu not to bring about a situation of lawlessness. (Jonathan Lis)

1:21 A.M. U.S. authorizes use of Johnson & Johnson coronavirus vaccine for adults 

The U.S. FDA has approved the use of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine, the third vaccine to be approved for use against the coronavirus in the U.S. 

The approval is a boost for US vaccine efforts, which have been picking up speed after a sluggish rollout. About 47.2 million people have received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said on Friday.

New Jersey-based Johnson & Johnson said 20 million doses would be delivered in the US by the end of March. The company plans to deliver 100 million doses during the first half of 2021.

The doses can be stored in a standard fridge, unlike the ultra-cold conditions required by the other two vaccines from Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech, both of which are two-shot regimes.

A global clinical trial showed the Johnson & Johnson vaccine was 66 percent effective at preventing various coronavirus variants. It was 85 percent effective at protecting against severe cases. (DPA) 

SATURDAY

8:41 P.M. Palestinian Authority orders West Bank schools shut

Schools in the West Bank will shut down for 12 days in an effort to stop a sharp rise in coronavirus variant infections, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh said.

High schools will be exempt from the closure which will begin on Sunday, Shtayyeh said in a televised address, adding the new restrictions were prompted by a large number of cases of the British and South African variants in the territory. (Reuters)

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8:20 P.M. Stillborn fetus tested positive for coronavirus

A pregnant woman with coronavirus lost her fetus on Saturday, in the second incident in Israel in which a fetus was confirmed to have contracted the virus in the womb.

The woman, who was 36-weeks pregnant, was admitted to Meir Hospital in Kfar Sava after she stopped feeling the fetus moving, and the doctors induced labor. Subsequent tests found that the fetus also tested positive for COVID-19. (Bar Peleg)

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4:49 P.M. For third day, police fail to enforce ban on gatherings

Several hundred people gathered in the Jaffa flea market area to celebrate the Jewish holiday of Purim. Despite a ban on large gatherings, in a bid to curb the spread of the coronavirus, police forces weren't seen in the area.

Police were present in other areas of Tel Aviv where big parties were held on Friday – but none on Saturday.

Similar instances of large gatherings during the day were also reported on Thursday in Tel Aviv and in other parts of the country, with little enforcement.

A nighttime curfew for Purim is set to resume on Saturday at 8:30 P.M., and will expire on Sunday at 5 A.M. The cabinet approved a series of specific measures for Jerusalem, where Purim is also celebrated on Sunday, a day later than the rest of Israel. (Bar Peleg)

12:30 P.M. Johnson & Johnson's one-dose vaccine closes in on FDA approval

Johnson & Johnson’s one-dose COVID-19 vaccine appeared safe and effective in trials, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration said Wednesday, paving the way for its approval for emergency use as soon as this week.

The vaccine was 66% effective at preventing moderate to severe COVID-19 in a 44,000 person global trial, the FDA said in documents ahead of a Friday meeting of independent experts who will advise the agency on emergency authorization.

New data provided by J&J to the FDA showed the vaccine was 64% effective at stopping moderate to severe cases of COVID-19 after 28 days in thousands of trial participants in South Africa where a worrying new variant has swept across the country. (Reuters)

12:29 P.M. Vaccination campaign reaches half of Israel's population

Half of Israel's population has received the first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine and more than a third of the population has been given the second jab, according to data released by the Health Ministry on Friday. 

According to the latest figures, Israel has vaccinated more than 4.6 million people (50 percent of the population), with more than 100,000 people receiving the jab on Thursday. Of the overall figure, almost 3.3 million people (35.2 percent of the population) have received the second dose of the vaccine. (Haaretz)

>> Click here to read the full report

FRIDAY

7:20 P.M. Thousands gather in Tel Aviv street parties

Thousands gathered to celebrate the Purim holiday on the streets of Tel Aviv on Friday, despite the coronavirus curfew and regulations. Police tried, but failed, to disperse groups of hundreds of people in the Kerem Hateimanim neighborhood and the nearby Carmel Market, threatening them with fines.

According to eyewitnesses, the parties were not organized but rather spontaneous gatherings of people who had bought alcohol from local bars and celebrated in the streets, many of them not wearing face masks to protect against the coronavirus.

On Thursday, Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai requested in a briefing for Tel Aviv District Police that officers focus on enforcement and making public announcements to disperse large groups. (Bar Peleg)

3:41 P.M. Cabinet orders halt on public transportation to and from Jerusalem for Purim

All public transportation and shuttles to and from Jerusalem will stop operating won't be allowed to operate starting Saturday at 6 P.M., and can resume services on Monday, the coronavirus cabinet decided.

While nighttime curfew across Israel expires on Sunday, Purim celebrations in Jerusalem are traditionally held a day later than the rest of the country, hence the specific restrictions for the city.

Organized shuttles to workplaces and school buses are allowed to operate as usual. 

Private cars will be permitted to enter and leave Jerusalem during the 30-hour period. (Haaretz)

2:55 P.M. Police disperse crowds in Tel Aviv hours before holiday curfew resumes

Hours before the nighttime curfew goes into effect this Purim holiday weekend, on Friday afternoon, police dispersed crowds in Tel Aviv's Carmel Market and Kerem Hateimanim, threatening to hand out fines.

The police began dispersing the crowds about two hours after they began to form. Although hundreds had gathered, with people buying alcohol at local bars and kiosks, this was not an organized street party. 

Elsewhere in Tel Aviv, people took to the streets to celebrate Purim, before the curfew resumes at 8:30 P.M., lasting until 5 A.M., and again on Saturday. During curfew hours, Israelis in Jewish-majority localities are banned from visiting other people's homes and are required to stay within a 1,000-meter radius of their own home, barring exceptional circumstances. (Bar Peleg)

12:25 P.M. COVID-19 infection coefficient on the rise again, indicating that the virus is spreading instead of retreating

As Israel continues to reopen its economy following a six-week lockdown, the COVID-19 infection has reversed course and is on the rise once again, with the infection coefficient (“R” – the average number of new infections caused by each carrier) inching toward 1 again and currently at 0.97, and the number of patients in serious condition also remaining high (over 800), according to a report released on Friday the Military Intelligence's national information center on the coronavirus.

The R rate is expected to surpass 1 within a few days if this trend of rising infection and serious illness continues. When the R rate is greater than 1, every person infected spreads it to more than one other person on average, such that the virus is spreading instead of retreating.

The next steps planned for reopening the economy should be reconsidered, the report's authors recommend, in light of the increase, which may be attributed to the spread of the British variant of the virus, and to a large portion of the population not having been vaccinated yet.

About 12 percent of those 50 and over (not including those who have recovered) have yet to receive the first dose of the vaccine, and the report cites a pronounced increase in the numbers of new patient in serious condition among younger age groups, which now make up of half of new serious cases. The British variant, which has become the dominant strain in Israel since the exit from the third nationwide lockdown began, significantly increases the risk of infection, as well as the severity of the illness and the need for hospitalization, by 60 to 70 percent, as compared to the original coronavirus variant. (Haaretz)

10:38 A.M. Police break up Purim parties

Police reported several parties held overnight in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh and Rehovot, which were held despite a nighttime curfew imposed during the Purim holiday.

Organizers of more than five parties were handed fines for violating the government's coronavirus regulations, and some were detained by police.

The curfew will resume on Friday at 8:30 P.M. and last until 5 A.M., and again on Saturday. During curfew hours, Israelis in Jewish-majority localities are banned from visiting other people's homes and are required to stay within a 1,000-meter radius of their own home, barring exceptional circumstances. (Bar Peleg and Aaron Rabinowitz)

THURSDAY

8:30 P.M. Israel's curfew ahead of Purim festivities goes into effect

A curfew aimed to discourage gatherings has gone into effect across Israel.

About 2,000 police officers have been deployed to enforce the curfew, which will last until 5 A.M. on Friday, and will go into effect again on Friday and Saturday from 8:30 P.M. to 5 A.M.

The cabinet is considering the possibility of extending the curfew by one day, since in Jerusalem the holiday is celebrated for an additional day, ending at sundown on Sunday.

The police will step up patrol and enforcement activities significantly around the country during the holiday weekend, including by operating 24 checkpoints nationwide during curfew hours.

National police commissioner Yaakov Shabtai said Wednesday he had instructed the department of investigations to initiate criminal proceedings against the organizers of illegal gatherings, in addition to fines for breaking the curfew.(Josh Breiner, Judy Maltz and Aaron Rabinowitz)

>> Click here to read the full report

8:16 P.M. Israel halts plans to ship COVID-19 vaccines abroad, attorney general says

Israel has halted all shipments of the COVID-19 vaccine abroad, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit said in a statement, adding that he was examining the legality of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to send part of Israel's vaccine supply to foreign countries.

Mendelblit said he was told by Israel’s National Security Council all shipments have been stopped, pending a legal review of the scheme. (Judy Maltz) 

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