TEL AVIV – Israel said Sunday it has ordered thousands of people into quarantine after a contentious phone surveillance program 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 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 they must enter quarantine since Thursday.
Just weeks ago, both Israel and the Palestinian Authority in the 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 uptick 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, adding that Israel would need to further clamp down to rein in the virus.
Israel is now reporting around 1,000 new cases a day, higher than its peak during the previous wave. Late 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 caseload, 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 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 proudly urging Israelis to go out, grab a coffee or a beer and “have fun.” Critics have charged Israel let down its guard, reopened too quickly and failed to capitalize on its gained time to improve its contact tracing capabilities to contend with a second wave.
Netanyahu, who was largely seen as having capably handled the first wave, has suffered in public opinion polls more recently.
Since the start of the outbreak, Israel has seen more than 29,000 cases and 330 deaths. More than 17,000 people have recovered.
In the 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 heavily 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 lock downs, 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 health care 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 West Bank has reported over 4,000 cases since the outbreak began. Twenty have died.
Elsewhere in the region the virus was also on the rise.
In Iran, the region's virus epicenter, Health Ministry spokeswoman Sima Sadat Lari said there were 2,560 new confirmed cases since Saturday, with 163 new deaths. That put its death toll since the start of the outbreak at more than 11,500, out of 240,438 confirmed cases.
Pakistan reported 93 more coronavirus deaths in the past 24 hours, increasing the country’s fatalities to 4,712 since the start of its outbreak at the end of February.
According to Sunday’s government statement, as many as 3,191 new cases were reported in the previous 24 hours, increasing the country’s overall cases to 228,474. It also indicated a steady reduction in coronavirus cases in recent days, apparently stemming from a decline in testing.
Officials say COVID-19 tests are decreasing because many people preferred to quarantine themselves at home after developing symptoms of coronavirus.
Associated Press writers Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, and Munir Ahmed in Islamabad, Pakistan, contributed to this report.