Israelis and Palestinians face new restrictions amid virus surge

Palestinians in the occupied West Bank have returned to life under lockdown due to a new rise in coronavirus cases

Relatives carry the body of 47-year-old Palestinian Hatem Joulani who died with Covid-19 during his funeral in the West Bank city of Hebron on July 5, 2020. EPA
Relatives carry the body of 47-year-old Palestinian Hatem Joulani who died with Covid-19 during his funeral in the West Bank city of Hebron on July 5, 2020. EPA

Israel has ordered thousands of people into quarantine after a contentious phone surveillance programme resumed while Palestinians in the West Bank returned to life under lockdown amid a surge in coronavirus cases in both areas.

Israel's Health Ministry said on Sunday "many" messages had been sent to Israelis following the renewed involvement of the Shin Bet domestic security agency. The Israeli daily Haaretz reported that more than 30,000 people were notified since Thursday that they must enter quarantine.

Just weeks ago, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank appeared to have contained outbreaks after imposing strict measures early on during a first wave of infections. But after reporting just a handful of new cases a day in early May, both areas have experienced a steady surge in cases following an easing of restrictions.

"We are at the height of a new corona offensive. This is a very strong outbreak that is growing and spreading in the world and also here," Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told his Cabinet.

"We are in a state of emergency," he said. Israel, he said, would need to further clamp down to rein in the virus.

Israel is now reporting about 1,000 new cases a day, higher than its peak during the previous wave. Late on Sunday, the parliament's coronavirus committee voted to impose new restrictions limiting gatherings in bars, synagogues and function halls to 50 people. Additional restrictions are expected in the coming days. It is requiring citizens wear masks and has urged more stringent social distancing.

With its contact-tracing apparatus struggling to keep up with the mounting cases, Israel last week redeployed the Shin Bet to use its sophisticated phone surveillance technology to track Israelis who have come in contact with infected people and then notify them that they must enter home quarantine. The measure is typically used to monitor suspected Palestinian militants.

The contentious tactic was used when the outbreak first emerged earlier this year, and when civil rights groups challenged it in the country's Supreme Court, the court threatened to halt its use unless it was put under legislative oversight. The Israeli Knesset has since done so twice using temporary legislation, most recently on Wednesday.

While officials have defended the practice as a life-saving measure, civil rights groups attacked it as an assault on privacy rights.

Israeli media reported that of the thousands ordered into home quarantine, many Israelis complained that had been falsely identified as being at risk and that a hotline for them to appeal was not functioning. The government said it was trying to resolve the problem.

Israel appeared to have put the pandemic behind it in May, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urging Israelis to go out, grab a coffee or a beer and "have fun." Critics have accused Israel of lowering its guard by reopening too quickly and failing to capitalise on its gained time to improve its contact tracing capabilities to contend with a second wave.

Mr Netanyahu, who was largely thought to have successfully handled the first wave, has suffered in public opinion polls more recently.

Since the start of the outbreak, Israel has reported more than 29,000 cases and 330 deaths. More than 17,000 people have recovered.

In the occupied West Bank, residents have been ordered since Friday to remain at home unless they need to purchase food or medicine. Movement between cities and towns is restricted. The lockdown is expected to last five days.

On Sunday, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas extended a state of emergency in the territory for 30 days, a measure that allows officials to impose additional virus restrictions, including extending lockdowns, banning movement between cities and deploying security forces.

Palestinian authorities fear that if the outbreak spirals out of control it could overwhelm its under-resourced healthcare system.

In the past two weeks, Palestinian health authorities have reported more than 1,700 confirmed coronavirus cases in the West Bank city of Hebron and hundreds more in Bethlehem and Nablus.

The occupied West Bank has reported more than 4,000 cases since the start of the pandemic. Twenty people have died.

Updated: July 6, 2020 03:14 PM

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