With Israel struggling to contain a second coronavirus wave, the government has introduced a weekend lockdown and tightened restrictions in an attempt to bring down the rising daily infection rate, which is now close to 2,000.
With angry demonstrations and polls showing the public was losing faith in the government’s response to both the pandemic and the deepening economic crisis, prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu also announced a controversial cash handout for every Israeli family in an effort to stimulate economic activity.
Beaches, malls and stores were ordered to close on weekends, which in Israel falls on Friday and Saturday.
The new weekday restrictions included limiting restaurants to takeaways and imposing a 50 per cent capacity on government offices. Pools, museums, exhibition spaces, and tourism and holiday venues were also shuttered.
Angry restaurant owners said they would defy the law and remain open this weekend rather than throw away all the food they had just bought ahead of the busiest two days of the week.
Mr Netanyahu reacted angrily when ministers spoke out against a plan to close summer schools and kindergartens.
“What, are you blind? We are heading toward a full lockdown,” he warned.
Mr Netanyahu prided himself on Israel’s successful response to the initial outbreak of coronavirus, saying other countries were following its example. By late May designated hospital coronavirus wards were closed and economic restrictions were eased as he told Israelis “go enjoy yourselves”.
But the lifting of the restrictions is now seen as having been too rapid and Israel is now in the midst of the second wave.
Naftali Bennett, leader of the right-wing opposition Yamina, criticised the new restrictions. “Prime minister, have you gone mad? Deciding to impose a broad lockdown is out of touch, illogical and destructive. Why are you ruining peoples’ livelihood?” he asked.
“The government has gone off the rails and it has lost the public’s trust,” said opposition leader Yair Lapid.
Knesset member Ofer Cassif from the opposition Joint List linked the weekend lockdown to polls showing growing criticism of Mr Netanyahu and large protests that took place recently in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
The feeling that the government is disconnected from the distress caused by mounting unemployment was amplified when Tzahi Hanegbi, a minister from Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party, described reports of citizens going hungry as “bullshit”.
On Wednesday Mr Netanyahu, in what looked like a panicked response to quell the growing resentment, announced that each family or adult would receive a grant of between 750 and 3,000 shekels (€190-€760).
“We need to get the economy moving and so we are giving out this money. People are sitting at home and not spending and we want to encourage consumption,” he said.
But the move, which was opposed by treasury officials, seemed to go against Mr Netanyahu’s staunchly capitalist, free market beliefs.
Critics said the plan failed to differentiate between the affluent and those who are truly struggling. Many who said they didn’t need the handout promised to donate the money to people hard hit by the coronavirus outbreak.