Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approaches the podium to give a speech from his Jerusalem office on Saturday, March 14, 2020,…
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approaches the podium to give a speech from his Jerusalem office, March 14, 2020.

JERUSALEM - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced a series of sharp restrictions on Israelis to combat the spread of COVID-19. The measures include an almost-total shutdown of the country except for pharmacies and supermarkets and a ban on gatherings of more than ten people. He also said he wants to use cyber-measures to track the locations of those infected.

Speaking on national television, Netanyahu said the coronavirus is an invisible enemy.

He said that he would use all means available to fight coronavirus including technological means he has hesitated to use until now, referring to cyber tools used to fight terrorism. 

Israel’s Attorney General approved using cyber-measures to track coronavirus patients’ phones. Israeli media said it would primarily be used to inform Israelis who might have been in the vicinity of a patient, and to ensure that patients under quarantine are staying at home.

There are at least 200 Israelis diagnosed with coronavirus and tens of thousands are under a two-week quarantine either because they had contact with a patient with the virus, or because they returned from abroad.

Israel’s former Justice Minister Ayelet Shake said that the decision to track the location of patients using their phone is problematic and she would try to make sure there is as little invasion of privacy as possible.

New restrictions that went into force on Sunday closed down all preschools and entertainment venues. Schools were closed last week and classes were being moved online.

Professor Golan Shachar a neuropsychologist said that so far Israelis are coping well.

“I think the Israeli public is reacting the way other peoples, other publics in the democratic world are reacting, and that is with tension, trepidation but in my humble opinion without panic,” said Shachar.

There were long lines at supermarkets despite Netanyahu’s assurances that everything would remain open. Most Israelis were ordered to work at home, or put on furlough.

The Israeli government announced a month-long grace period for paying taxes and said that those temporarily unemployed including thousands of tour guides can apply for unemployment.

“In the short term it will draw down economic activity quite substantially with a focus on specific sectors that are likely to feel substantial difficulties, cash flow difficulties and other types of difficulties,” said Gil Bufman, chief economist at Israel’s Bank Leumi.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu’s trial for fraud and breach of trust, that was scheduled to start on Tuesday, has been postponed for two months. Netanyahu is trying to form a unity government with former Chief of Staff Benny Gantz after an inconclusive election — Israel’s third this year.

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