Mehul Srivastava in Tel Aviv
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu buckled under pressure from his ultra-orthodox coalition allies and cancelled a targeted lockdown of their segregated cities, even as Israel’s death toll from the coronavirus passed the grim milestone of a thousand deaths.
The lockdown of some two dozen cities, mostly ultra-orthodox and Arab majority, was designed to dislodge Israel’s ranking from the worst country in the world for new infections, on a per capita basis. The country has averaged 2000 new infections per day for weeks, with a leap to 3,000 on Thursday night.
Instead, as the mayors of ultra-orthodox towns and cities threatened to defy the lockdown orders, Mr Netanyahu cancelled a scheduled cabinet vote and instead instituted a night-time curfew. There is currently no scientific evidence that night-time curfews have any impact on halting the virus.
“We will not forget who is the man who, time and again, signed onto turning us into disease vectors and enemies of the people through selective punishment of tens of thousands of families,” four mayors of ultra-orthodox towns said in an open letter.
They claimed Mr Netanyahu had turned the community, which makes up a tenth of Israel’s population, into a “punching-bag.”
Ultra-orthodox schoolgirls wear face masks as they walk along a street in Bnei Brak, near Tel Aviv
Israel’s coronavirus tsar, Ronni Gamzu, complained that he was facing “organised artillery designed to divert my attention from professional decisions”, and opposition lawmakers said Mr Netanyahu’s decision would force the entire country into a crippling lockdown instead.
Mr Netanyahu’s coalition depends on unwavering support from the devoutly religious ultra-orthodox community, which resisted prior lockdowns until the army was deployed to quell regular gatherings at synagogues and yeshivas in April. The current curfew will leave both synagogues and yeshivas open.
Some 70 per cent of cases in Israel at that time were from the ultra-othodox community, which tends to be poorer than the average population, forcing large families into small apartments in crowded cities.
Slower testing over the sabbath yielded 1,500 new infections, a positive rate of about 10 per cent. Israel has recorded more than 130,000 infections since the beginning of the pandemic.