Once a role model in the fight against Covid-19, Israel decided Sunday to partially lock down several cities to slow the fast-spreading contagion as the government faces harsh criticism over the crisis.

The government's ministerial committee on coronavirus decided to impose "a nightly closure" on 40 cities and towns with the highest infection rates, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement.

He said "educational institutions" would be closed with the exception of special education centres, and gatherings limited to 10 people in closed spaces and 20 outdoors.

Rising case numbers of coronavirus in Israel has fuelled protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's management of the crisis Rising case numbers of coronavirus in Israel has fuelled protests against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's management of the crisis Photo: AFP / Ahmad GHARABLI

 

"I know these limitations are not easy, but in the current situation, there's no way to avoid them," Netanyahu said of the restrictions set to begin on Monday.

Israel passed the milestone of 1,000 novel coronavirus deaths this weekend after the toll tripled over the summer, fuelling regular protests against Netanyahu's management of the health crisis and associated economic downturn.

The dead were commemorated by Yediot Aharonot, Israel's top-selling daily newspaper, which covered its front page with the names of the victims and called out the "shameful failure of the management of the crisis since May".

According to data collected by AFP, the Jewish state has risen to be ranked fifth in the world for the number of infections per capita over the past two weeks, ahead of hard-hit countries Brazil and the United States.

Israeli comedians, wearing masks bearing the portraits of leaders including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, stage a fake cabinet meeting protesting the government's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic Israeli comedians, wearing masks bearing the portraits of leaders including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, stage a fake cabinet meeting protesting the government's handling of the Covid-19 pandemic Photo: AFP / JACK GUEZ

 

On Wednesday, the country with a population of under nine million confirmed a record 3,141 new infections in a single day.

The ballooning cases stood in contrast to the low number of infections recorded in the early stages of the pandemic.

 

 

Israel was seen as an early success story in stemming coronavirus infections, but new lockdown restriction are expected to be declared after a surge of cases Israel was seen as an early success story in stemming coronavirus infections, but new lockdown restriction are expected to be declared after a surge of cases Photo: AFP / MENAHEM KAHANA

 

When the first virus cases emerged in March, the government took swift action, cancelling almost all international flights, shutting down non-essential businesses and placing the country under lockdown for weeks.

By mid-May, after zero cases were recorded for two consecutive days, the government moved to expedite the reopening of schools, bars, eateries and places of worship, as well as allowing weddings under limitations.

Infection numbers began rising within days of loosening restrictions and since July the number of cases have risen to more than 130,000.

Some said the increase was due to lifting measures too quickly, coupled with insufficient economic assistance that pushed people back into work. Others blamed disorganisation in the healthcare system.

Many Israelis have observed restrictions to stop coronavirus spreading, including ensuring people keep their distance as they pray, but cases continue to grow Many Israelis have observed restrictions to stop coronavirus spreading, including ensuring people keep their distance as they pray, but cases continue to grow Photo: AFP / MENAHEM KAHANA

 

As part of efforts to control the public health crisis, the government divided the country's cities and towns into four colour-coded categories -- green, yellow, orange and red -- based on infection rates.

The 40 cities and towns subject to the closure were the "red" ones.

"If the closure is in our interest and to not spread the disease further among people, then there is no problem, even if there is suffering due to the closure", said Imad, a resident of the Muslim quarter in Jerusalem's Old City.

Israel's army will deploy 7,000 reserve troops to bolster police forces in "red" cities.

"We must put an end to indifference and disregard" for protocols, said Ronni Gamzu, chief doctor in the Covid-19 fight.

Gamzu highlighted a need in particular for vigilance in ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities, where case numbers have been notably high and adherence to health protocols patchy.

Mayors of four major ultra-Orthodox cities expressed outrage over the intention to lock down their cities in a harshly-worded letter to Netanyahu, saying they will not cooperate with authorities.

In an attempt to assuage their anger, Netanyahu denied discriminating against their cities.

"A 'red' city is not designated as such out of malice or arbitrarily, it's designated based on scientific data -- the number of sick people, the infection rate," he said in a video.

"Currently the focus is in Arab and ultra-Orthodox locales."

Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz called on Sunday for sweeping lockdown measures, saying on public radio that "with 3,000 cases a day, there are no 'green' cities".

"There is no choice but to close everything, it is better to lock down the whole country for two weeks and become a 'green' country again than to stay in the red for months," he added.

But other key figures in Netanyahu's unity government fear the economic repercussions of locking down the whole country.

On top of that, the government could face pressure not to impose nationwide restrictions from the ultra-Orthodox community.

It is opposed to measures that would close places of worship ahead of the Jewish festivals of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur later in September.