Coronavirus Israel Live: Netanyahu, Gantz Trade Barbs as Cabinet Fails to Decide on Reopening

Third lockdown ends but schools remain closed ■ Thousands attend funeral of prominent rabbi in central Israel ■ 22 percent of Israelis have received second vaccine dose

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Protesters in Jerusalem carry a coronavirus inflatable at a demonstration against the government's lockdown measures on Saturday.
Protesters in Jerusalem carry a coronavirus inflatable at a demonstration against the government's lockdown measures on Saturday.Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
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Haaretz

This story is longer being updated. Follow live updates here.

Despite an extensive vaccination campaign, coronavirus cases in Israel remain high and show little sign of decreasing. Israel is exiting its third nationwide lockdown, and has halted inbound and outbound flights and closed down its overland border crossings. 5,097 Israelis have died so far of the virus.

Meanwhile, Palestinians in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip await vaccines, though it may take at least a few more months for their campaigns to reach enough members of the population. 1,543 people have died so far in the West Bank, while 529 have died in Gaza.

>> Pfizer COVID vaccines delivering promised rate of protection, Israeli data shows

>> How many Israelis have already been vaccinated for COVID

>> As Israel passes 5,000 COVID deaths, strains and anti-vaxxers lurk around the corner

LIVE UPDATES

11:50 P.M. Education Minister says willing to keep schools closed

Yoav Gallant said at a cabinet meeting on lifting restrictions: “If the education system should stay closed in order to overcome the pandemic, we should do it.” 

No decision has been made on reopening schools, but Gallant’s remarks point to a willingness by cabinet ministers to delay it beyond Tuesday, as some proposals discussed by ministers call for. (Judy Maltz)

11:45 P.M. Cabinet adjourns meeting without taking decisions

Israel's government ministers were supposed to take crucial decisions regarding next steps in bringing the country out of lockdown – but failed to do so.

The cabinet is aiming to reconvene on Monday, if the prime minister's schedule allows it: Netanyahu is appearing in his corruption trial in the morning, and is scheduled to meet with the Greek prime minister who came to visit the country for a few hours.

"As hours go by, we understand we have a very narrow margin of error," Benjamin Netanyahu said after the meeting. (Judy Maltz)

10:56 P.M. Netanyahu, Gantz trade barbs in leaked recordings of cabinet meeting

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz argued during the cabinet meeting about lifting some lockdown restrictions. In recordings broadcast on Channel 12 News and Kan public broadcaster, Netanyahu is heard yelling at Gantz, who was pushing for some opening of the economy, “The lives of many Israelis will be on your hands.”

According to Netanyahu at the meeting, the position of Kahol Lavan regarding the lockdown stemmed from political considerations. “The public knows well what your game is,” the premier is heard saying. “They understand that you are sentencing a lot of Israelis to harsh morbidity and harsh death.”

Gantz retorted, “Don’t teach me about responsibility for human life. You’re pulling the wool over the public’s eyes.” When Netanyahu said the reason the cabinet had to discuss extending the lockdown at the last minute was Gantz’s insistence on passing the law to increase fines for violations, Gantz said, “We could have had the discussion about the lockdown without the fines, it’s not so … the story with the fines took two months, you know that. It sat for two months and wasn’t advanced.”

After the recordings were broadcast, Gantz said in a statement, “Pursuant to the tendentious and serious leaks from a cabinet discussion, the defense minister demands that the minutes of all cabinet discussions on the coronavirus and of the coronavirus cabinet be published in full, not just leaks for the prime minister’s personal and legal needs.” (Haaretz)

10:45 P.M. Thousands attend funeral of prominent Bnei Brak rabbi

Israeli election campaign finally begins: Who's up? Who's down? Who's in? Who's Out? LISTEN

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Thousands are attending a funeral in the ultra-Orthodox Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak, despite restrictions on large gatherings. Large police forces are present in the vicinity of the cemetery where Rabbi Chaim Meir Halevy Wosner is being laid to rest. 

Rabbi Wosner was the head rabbi of the Sages of Lublin Yeshiva and died on Sunday at the age of 83 after contracting COVID-19.

Although senior police officials told community representatives to limit the funeral to the rabbi’s family only, announcements were heard in the city throughout the day, calling for a funeral.

In 2015, two people were trampled to death at the funeral for Rabbi Wosner’s father, the prominent Bnei Brak Haredi Rabbi Shmuel Halevy Wosner. (Bar Peleg

10:02 P.M. Coronavirus czar presents plan for reopening

Israel’s coronavirus czar, Prof. Nachman Ash, presented to the cabinet his three-phase proposal for reopening schools and businesses. The first phase, in which all restrictions on movement would be removed and some businesses and classes would be allowed to resume activity, calls for 80 percent of Israelis over 50 to be vaccinated and 2 million people across all age groups after their second dose of the vaccine. It also requires an R number, representing the average infection rate, lower than 1 – meaning the pandemic is slowing, and fewer than 1,000 patients in serious condition.

There are already more than 2 million Israelis who received the second dose of the vaccine, according to Health Ministry figures, but there are more than 1,100 patients in serious condition. The vaccination rate among Israelis 80 and older is just below 80 percent.

The next two phases of Ash’s plan, which would allow more sectors of the economy to reopen, call for more people vaccinated and fewer patients in serious condition. (Judy Maltz)

7:30 P.M. Cabinet meets to debate school, commerce reopening

After a three-hour delay, government ministers opened their meeting on further easing of current measures, specifically reopening schools and commerce. The cabinet is also set to debate reopening Israel's borders and cultural institutions.

It is expected to approve full reopening of preschools for children up to 3 years of age, and preschools and schools for other age groups in cities and areas with relatively low rates of infection. (Judy Maltz and Shira Kadari-Ovadia)

>> Click here to read the full report

2:45 P.M. Dozens of ultra-Orthodox schools operating in violation of restrictions

Dozens of ultra-Orthodox schools are operating in Haredi cities in violation of COVID-19 lockdown restrictions. These are schools belonging to more extreme factions in the ultra-Orthodox community, as well as in the mainstream Hasidic community, some of whose institutions have continued to operate throughout the lockdown. 

Additionally, in recent weeks, some schools from the "Lithuanian" non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox community have also reopened, albeit with reduced operations, with the permission of Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, its spiritual leader.

Police forces have been enforcing regulations in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods associated with extreme factions in Beit Shemesh, Ashdod and Jerusalem, where fines were given to schools that remained open. (Aaron Rabinowitz)

2:16 P.M. Israel to discuss gradual plan for reopening schools after lockdown

Israel's coronavirus cabinet is expected to discuss a plan on Sunday for gradually reopening schools as Israel exits its third nationwide lockdown.

According to the plan, made public on Sunday morning, kindergartens and grades one through four will return to school, along with grades 11 and 12, in communities designated “yellow” and “green,” meaning they have lower infection rates.

In communities designated “orange” and “red” – with higher instances of the coronavirus – half of each class will come to school every other day, and classes will be held outdoors only. Grades five through ten will continue distance learning in all communities. (Shira Kadari-Ovadia and Ido Efrati)

>> For full report click here

10:20 A.M.  Health Ministry agreed to partial reopening of schools in 'red' towns, education minister says

Education Minister Yoav Gallant said Sunday that the Health Ministry agreed during discussions a day earlier to reopen schools only partially (kindergartens, grades one through four, and grades 11 and 12) and only in so-called green and yellow towns, but eventually agreed to compromise and partially reopen schools, under strict regulations, in red and orange cities. (Shira Kadari-Ovadia)

7:00 A.M. Third lockdown ends but schools remain closed

A series of lockdown restrictions were lifted on Sunday morning, as the government begins a gradual end to the nationwide lockdown. 

The following restrictions were lifted: 

1. Travel limit of one kilometer from one's home

2. Ban on visiting the house of another person 

3. Closure of national parks 

4. Ban on workplaces that don't receive customers 

5. Ban on one-on-one services, such as beauty salons 

6. Ban on picking up takeaway from restaurants 

Schools remained closed, with the cabinet agreeing on Saturday night to begin reopening them on Tuesday at 7 A.M. They will likely begin to reopen gradually, according to sources in the Education Ministry.

The cabinet is expected to convene on Sunday to discuss plans for reopening schools. (Judy Maltz)

SATURDAY

9:00 P.M. Top ministers, Netanyahu meet to discuss plans to reopen education system 

Israel’s education system is not expected to open until Tuesday, where it will likely reopen gradually and slowly, according to sources in the education ministry.

Netanyahu will meet with the health, education and finance ministers on Saturday to prepare for the next day's discussions on a lockdown exit plan and reopening the education system. 

Since the cabinet meeting on Thursday, no discussions have taken place between education and health ministry officials.

School principals have told Haaretz that they turned to the education ministry to receive details on reopening their schools, yet their queries went unanswered. 

Education Minister Yoav Gallant, who in previous discussions called to reopen the education system, is not expected to so this time.

Kahol Lavan ministers are insisting to only reopen kindergartens, grades one through four, and grades 11 and 12 in cities with low infection rates, or cities with a high percentage of vaccinated adults. (Judy Maltz, Shira Kadari-Ovadia) 

12.28 P.M. Gov't extends closure of Ben Gurion airport, land crossings

The government extended the closure of Ben Gurion International airport and land crossings into Israel for two weeks until February 21.

It was also decided that Settlement Affairs Minister Tzachi Hanegbi will head the committee handling requests by Israelis requesting to either fly abroad or return to Israel from abroad. (Judy Maltz)

2:00 A.M. Government votes to extend nationwide lockdown until Sunday 

The government has approved the extension of the lockdown by two days, ending on Sunday, February 7, at 7 A.M. The government has also voted on the prime minister and health minister's suggestion to begin gradually lifting restrictions. 

Regarding education, the health and education ministries will decide on reopening schools in separate talks. As of Sunday, Israelis will also be allowed to travel within Israel with their nuclear family.

The government is set to reconvene on Sunday to discuss formulating a more detailed exit plan from the lockdown. (Judy Maltz) 

12:36 A.M. Attorney General squashes government decision to extend lockdown; government has until 7 A.M. to decide terms of proposed extension 

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit has disqualified the government's decision to extend Israel's nationwide lockdown, minutes after they decided to extend it from Friday at 7 A.M. till midnight between Sunday and Monday.

He did so as the vote Mendelblit based his decision on the coalition agreement that remains between Likud and Kahol Lavan, which states that no party can approve a governmental decision that isn't agreed on by both parties. Kahol Lavan and Labor ministers had opposed the extension voted on by their Likud and Haredi counterparts.

In this instance, Netanyahu made the decision without receiving approval from his Kahol Lavan coalition partners. The government has until 7 A.M. to make a decision regarding the status of the lockdown. 

According to Israel's Basic Laws which were adapted to the coalition agreement, if the number of ministers between the coalition blocs aren't equal, a mechanism that will enforce equal votes must be put in place. This law provided the foundations for Mendelblit's decision to cancel the government's decision regarding the lockdown, his office clarified in a statement. (Judy Maltz, Netael Bandel)

12:13 A.M. Government decides to extend lockdown until midnight between Sunday and Monday  

The cabinet decided to extend the nationwide coronavirus lockdown until midnight between Sunday and Monday. The lockdown was set to end on Friday at 7 A.M. (Judy Maltz)

THURSDAY

11:50 P.M. Israel passes grim milestone of 5,000 coronavirus deaths

The Health Ministry reported on Thursday night that 5,001 people had passed away in Israel after being infected with the coronavirus. Israel currently has 1,040 seriously ill patients, 364 of whom are in critical condition, and 307 are on ventilators. So far, 3,369,379 Israelis have had at least one dose of the vaccine, with 1,965,657 Israelis receiving both doses. (Haaretz)

6:15 P.M. Cabinet approves reinstating 14-day quarantine for all travelers

All travelers entering Israel will now be required to quarantine for 14-days at government run hotels. The quarantine rule approved by the government on Thursday is set to expire on February 21. 

Travelers who can provide two negative COVID-19 tests within 10 days will be permitted to leave the hotel. Travelers who have been vaccinated will be exempted from quarantine, according to the Health Ministry guidelines. (Judy Maltz)

5:38 P.M. Cabinet approves new regulations specifying fines for violations

The cabinet approved on Thursday new regulations proposed by the Health Ministry, which specify the amounts of fines to be given out for violations, which will go into effect within 24 hours.

According to the regulations, operating a business or other place open to the public against regulations will result in a fine of 5,000 shekels (about $1,500) for a place with an area of 100 meters of less, 7,500 shekels for a place with an area between 100 and 500 meters, and 10,000 shekels for a place with an area over 500 meters.

For holding a banned event or one with a higher number of attendees than is allowed, the fine is 5,000 shekels if the event is outdoors and 10,000 shekels if it is indoors.

Fines for educational institutions open in violation of lockdown can be fined 5,000 shekels if the number of students is 35 or less, and 10,000 shekels if there are more than 35 students. (Haaretz)

4:32 P.M. Health Ministry announces new vaccine certificate

The Health Ministry has announced a new campaign to provide a certificate of vaccination for all those who have been inoculated.

This certificate will exempt people from quarantine, the Ministry said, adding that it can be obtained seven days after receiving the second dose of the inoculation.  It will be available in Hebrew and English in accordance with international standards.

As of Thursday all those above the age of 16 are eligible to receive the vaccine.

Health Minister Yuli Edelshtein said of the expanded vaccine drive: "There are no excuses. Everyone is coming to get vaccinated. Together we will defeat COVID."

4:22 P.M. Gantz: We must begin gradually lifting the lockdown

Defense Minister Benny Gantz said it was necessary to begin lifting the lockdown as he addressed a cabinet meeting on Thursday. Reopening the economy and schools should be done gradually, with consideration of infection rates in different locations, and with strict regulations inside spaces that are reopening. "In my view, lockdown has stopped being a working plan and a single solution, and we must begin reopening the economy gradually and with oversight," he said. (Judy Maltz)

4:10 P.M. Netanyahu: Get vaccinated and we can reopen economy, vaccinating those over 50 will protect us all

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged Israelis to get vaccinated on Thursday as he addressed a cabinet meeting, saying it was particularly important for every Israeli above the age of 50 to receive the vaccine and that this would allow the government to reopen the economy. "Go get vaccinated," he said. "The vaccines work. So if you go and get vaccinated, we will be able to gradually exit the coronavirus [crisis] and open our economy carefully and responsibly."

Netanyahu also claimed that vaccinating people over 50 would protect all other Israelis. Vaccinating those over 50 "must be our most important goal," Netanyahu said. "We need to turn to looking at the percentage of those vaccinated in the critical age groups – and if they are protected, then we are all protected." (Judy Maltz)

3:15 P.M. After several delays, cabinet opens meeting on extending lockdown

The cabinet has opened its meeting on potentially extending Israel's nationwide lockdown beyone Friday at 7 A.M.

The meeting, initially planned for Wednedsay, was delayed several times throughout Thursday. (Judy Maltz)

1:37 P.M. Cabinet postpones meeting on lockdown extension

The cabinet was set to meet at 2 P.M. to discuss a proposal to extend Israel's nationwide lockdown beyond Friday, but the meeting has been pushed forward by an hour, for the third time.

It is now expected to be held at 3 P.M., hours before the current measures expire at 7 A.M. on Friday. (Judy Maltz)

10:07 A.M. Knesset ratifies restrictions on international travel 

The Knesset has retroactively approved the cabinet's decision to limit to international entry into Israel. 

The restrictions, put into place by the cabinet and authorized by the Knesset in a second and third reading, stipulate that passengers and crew will be required to present a negative coronavirus test before boarding a plane to Israel.

The legislation allows the government to install coronavirus testing centers on its land borders, and to condition entry upon the presentation of a negative test. 

The government will also be authorized to block the entry of citizens who have tested positive for coronavirus into Israel, except in special circumstances and with the approval of the director general of the Health Ministry.

Israelis who have a permanent place of residence abroad will be permitted to leave the country, but anybody who has two permanent residences in Israel and abroad will not be able to move between them.

The travel restrictions have been implemented in a bid to halt the entrance of new variants of coronavirus into Israel, which could pose  a significant risk to the country, according to Health Ministry professionals. (Jonathan Lis)

9:05 A.M. Palestinian Health Ministry: 10,000 Sputnik V vaccines arrive in West Bank 

The Palestinians will receive 10,000 doses of Russia's Sputnik V vaccine on Thursday, enough to cover 5,000 people, Palestinian Health Minister Mai Alkaila told Voice of Palestine radio.

The vaccines were transferred from Ben-Gurion Airport to the Palestinian Authority in coordination with the IDF. 

The Palestinian Authority launched its vaccination campaign on Tuesday after a delivery of 2000 doses for medical staff arrrived from Israel. (Jack Khoury and Reuters)

>> Click here to read the full report

7:32 A.M. 3.3 million Israelis vaccinated against COVID-19

Israel has inoculated 3.3 million against coronavirus, with 1.9 million receiving their second dose, the Health Ministry reported on Thursday morning.

On Wednesday, 107,000 Israelis received the jab, though this represented a slowdown in the uptake of the COVID-19 vaccination.

The vaccine is officially extended to anybody aged 16 and over from Thursday. (Ido Efrati)

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